three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Indian ClerkWhen Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught math genius from Madras, sends G. H. Hardy, the foremost mathematician in early 20th-century England, a document that works out an important mathematical theorem, Hardy invites him over from India to work with him at Cambridge. Ramanujan, dubbed the "Hindoo calculator," initially appears as the perfect British servant—save his skin color. Hardy, with eccentricities of his own, soon realizes that his protégé’s social skills do not match his mathematical gifts, though he influences everyone around him. As Ramanujan slides into illness, World War I breaches the academy. In a parallel narrative that takes place years later, Hardy reveals his own loneliness and homosexuality in a series of real and imagined lectures for Harvard.
Bloomsbury. 485 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1596910402

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Leavitt’s portrait of Hardy is a remarkable achievement: he is both sympathetic and cowardly, intellectually arrogant and profoundly insecure. … Reading [the novel] offers the pleasure of escape into another world, along with the nagging feeling of familiarity that characterizes the best historical fiction." Nell Freudenberger

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Leavitt makes the math of prime numbers surprisingly palatable. But we learn more about the complexities of love and work, and their interaction. In Hardy, Leavitt has created a rich character for the reader to care about." Merrill Kaitz

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is not necessary to read the proofs and formulas sprinkled throughout; one can appreciate them as aesthetic and lucid expressions of a rigorous language. … On the individual level, nothing much happens; in the public arena, events pile on top of one another, and the brutal world muscles into the domain of thought." Brigitte Frase

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"With these digressions [of trysts and all-male meetings], the novel loses sight of Ramanujan, the lonely figure who speaks to Hardy’s folly and England’s arrogance of power. It loses its focus on an otherwise convincing portrayal of the closed rooms and closed minds of an aging imperial prerogative." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Christian Science Monitor 2 of 5 Stars
"[Ramanujan remains elusive] because Leavitt chronicles Ramanujan’s years in England (which were cut short by ill health) chiefly through the lens of various white people around him. The limitations of this become most noticeable (and most frustrating) when Alice Neville, the wife of the man sent to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge, serves as the scrying glass." Yvonne Zipp

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Scenes in south India have no light, no texture of heat, sweat, odor of any kind, and even England is a bit hazily conceived. At some point, historical novelists need to let go of their research and make use of their senses to embody and enchant." David Mason

Critical Summary

Based on a lecture given by a real-life Hardy in 1913, this intellectual and historical novel explores the beauty of mathematics, the nature of creativity, sexual repression, class relations, and the frailty of human connection—all set against the decline of empire and war. David Leavitt, best known for While England Sleeps (1993), impressed critics with his research and the novel’s accessibility; even his discussions of the Riemann hypothesis and the secret order of the primes offered them interest. Leavitt depicts his characters, however, less successfully. A few reviewers complained about Ramanujan’s ambiguity, questioned his decision to characterize Hardy as gay, and criticized cameos of historical figures such as D. H. Lawrence. The Indian Clerk is a flawed but intriguing look into the zeitgeist of the British Empire in the early 20th century.