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on 9 September 2007
In this big and expansive novel, author David Leavitt brings to life the world of Edwardian England, and in the process, recounts the relationship of British mathematician G. H Hardy (1877-1947) with the Indian born genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920). Godfrey Harold Hardy was most known for his achievements in number theory and mathematical analysis, but it is his relationship as mentor, from 1914 onwards, of Ramanujan that has become most widely celebrated.

"I did not invent him, he invented himself, and my association with him is the one romantic incident in my life, tells Hardy in 1936 as he begins a speech in the New Lecture Hall at Harvard University. Back in 1913 Hardy received a strange letter from an unknown clerk in Madras, accompanied by nine dense pages of mathematics, containing theorems on infinite series, improper integrals, continued fractions, number theory, and including the attempt to prove the "Riemann hypothesis."

Upon showing the formulas to his collaborator J. E. Littlewood, they both conclude that these results "must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them." As a result, Hardy, buoyed along by his sense of ambition, sequesters his best friends Eric Neville, and his lovely wife, Alice, to travel to India in order to bring Ramanujan to England.

In a series of letters to Hardy's sister Gertrude, Alice tells them both much about Ramanujan's situation where he grew up poor in South India. Once a promising student and locally renowned for winning academic prizes in high school, his total engagement in mathematics proved disastrous, and ignoring all his other subjects, he repeatedly failed his college exams.

Also deeply religious, Ramanujan's domineering mother fears both the social and spiritual consequences of her son breaking the rules of his caste and crossing the seas, and the great cultural gulf that separates India from England. Still, to England Ramanujan comes and where, upon his arrival, he is cared for by the Nevilles who make him feel at home by feeding and bedding him, while showing him how to navigate the byways of Cambridge and the stuffy corridors of Trinity College.

Thus begins a very successful five-year collaboration with Hardy that endures through enormous social and political upheavals. It is here in England that Ramanujan must face the difficulties of being a brown-skinned man in an all white world and where the English customs ultimately prove to be very strange to him. Eventually, however, the winters and the alien culture begin a toll on his health. With the arrival of World War 1, the English are gradually beaten down by unremitting German bombings, which only make things worse for Ramanujan.

In order to adhere to his caste's strict dietary rules, Ramanujan has to do much of his own cooking, but with the prerequisite wartime shortages, the young Indian finds himself bereft of many of the essential ingredients. Where once the kindly Alice Neville had beguiled him, and Hardy with copious amounts of exotic vegetarian dishes, now Ramanujan must scrimp and save for the foods he craves, in particular the fresh vegetables that are a staple of his diet. In 1917 he was hospitalized, his doctors fearing for his life. By late 1918 his health had improved; he returned to India in 1919. But his health failed again, and he died the next year

As most of the action of The Indian Clerk is filtered through Hardy's eyes, Leavitt does a truly remarkable job of painting the mathematician's most intimate thoughts as he clings desperately for meaning in a drastically changing world. The author is also able to get right inside the mind of the mathematician and the world, that for all its abstraction, is far more real to Hardy and Ramanujan than the world in which they eat and talk and sleep, "this was the world in which Ramanujan and I were happiest - a world remote from religion, war, literature, sex, and even philosophy."

Of course, this novel is not just about Hardy's triumphant professional relationship with Ramanujan, but also about his relationships over the years with Littlewood and the Nevilles, his sister Gertrude, and also of the men in the elite society of the Apostles which was made up of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, and G. E. Moore. For Hardy, these are the men were the individuals who would determine England's future as an empire.

Hardy was a committed atheist and, according to those who knew him best, particualry Littlewood, a "non-practising homosexual." But to his credit, Leavitt doesn't shy away from presenting this enigmatic side of Hardy's life as he embarks on a stormy affair with Thayer, a wounded working-class soldier who has just returned from the front lines, while still harboring feelings for the great love of his life, classicist Russell Gaye who committed suicide, and who periodically comes back to haunt Hardy in his dreams.

The Indian Clerk certainly goes beyond the simple retelling of the lives of two mathematicians, one British, the other Indian, with Leavitt far more intent to paint a much boarder canvas, that encapsulates all of the personal ambitions and a rigid proprieties that made up much of Edwardian social, political, and sexual dynamic.

The mathematical tabulations, do every now and then, come across as a bit dull, particularly for those of us who know nothing about math, (my eyes actually glazed over at reading them), but in the end, they are central to our understanding of the main protagonists' love of numbers, including their infinite flexibility and their rigid order, and the degree to which both Hardy and Ramanujan had this incredible and unbelievable ability to manipulate them. Mike Leonard September 07.
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`The man sitting next to the podium appeared to be very old, at least in the eyes of the members of his audience, most of whom were very young.'

GH Hardy, the famous mathematician, is about to receive an honourary degree from Harvard at the start of this novel. But he knows that his audience will want to hear about Ramanujan, the Indian clerk of the title, a mathematical genius and Hardy's protégé. In his speech Hardy says that his association with Ramanujan was `the one romantic incident' in his life.

I'm not quite sure what I think about this genre of historical fiction based on real lives but Leavitt is very good at it. It's well researched, convincing and engaging. It's good on the maths and the search for the proof of Riemann hypothesis for prime numbers and of Cambridge and London just before and during the first world war. It examines class and also the homosexual world at that time - DH Lawrence and Wittgenstein both make an appearance and both seem repulsed by what they see of Cambridge gay society. Bertrand Russell, JM Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Rupert Brooke are fellow apostles, the not so secret society of which Hardy is a member. They have minor roles but help to place this novel in terms of time and place.

Ramanujan and Hardy come from different worlds but both can enter a world of maths which most of us cannot inhabit `a world remote from religion, war, literature, sex, even philosophy' says Hardy and he also states `a slate and some chalk. That's all you need'. Leavitt does a pretty good job of giving us a feel for that and the excitement that goes with it. Except that it turns out that isn't all either of them need. Ramanuajn gets ill in England; it's difficult for him to follow his strict vegetarian diet. He wants the honours and prizes he hasn't had to date. Hardy has fulfilment in his working partnerships with Littlewood and Ramanujan but can't extend that into his personal relationships. It's a strange era, at once more formal than ours and yet one in which friendship between grown men can be expressed by them walking hand in hand through the streets.

Overall, The Indian Clerk is very good but not fully successful - perhaps because Leavitt had to follow the facts or perhaps because Ramanujan remains such an enigma - but it's well worth the read and you even feel like you've grasped some of the maths.
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on 16 November 2007
I never wanted to read David Leavitt before; his stories seemed in prospect so tedious and depressing. But after two wildly over-praised novels by Cynthia Ozick (Glimmering) and Peter Carey (Maggs), with their swiss-cheese plots, hollow characters, and unpersuasive endings, I decided what the hell and opened Leavitt's "The Indian Clerk."

I was instantly absorbed by this fine, subtle, rich, and satisfying portrait of the world of gay Cambridge Apostles in the 1910s, with a Hindu wild child as a curried side dish. Incubated by all-male boarding schools, these British academics considered homosexuality as morally neutral as being left-handed; though most eventually married for show, they continued to chase boys whenever inclined, without apology, subject to the same panoply of pushing and pulling emotions as straights. How curious that Leavitt produces a profound meditation on today's post-taboo gay practice by going back to 1913!

Leavitt's style (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Penelope Fitzgerald's in "The Gate of Angels") makes fine use of Chekhov's great discovery, that cool unjudging observance of everyday trivia builds highly textured characterizations, and thanks to this device, I cared about each one of his many characters and was unwilling to exit at the book's end. He also explains high-level math with the ease of a real buff. Having written a non-fiction bio of Alan Turing beforehand, Leavitt now enjoys the distinction of being a first-class novelist who is also an expert in British gay mathematicians of the early 20th century!
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This is the story of the relationship between two brilliant but eccentric men of mathematics who came from vastly different backgrounds. G.H. Hardy was one of the preeminent academics in England: a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and credited with single-handedly bringing rigour to British mathematics. Srinivasa Ramanujan was a poor, uneducated Indian who taught himself mathematics in isolation from the rest of the world, and went on to make remarkable discoveries in that subject. Their meeting came about when Ramanujan wrote to Hardy out of the blue describing some of these, and asked for his help. Hardy immediately realized that Ramanujan was a genius and brought him to Cambridge in 1914 so they could work together in the rarefied atmosphere of number theory.

Such is the basic story, which has already been described in Ramanujan's excellent biography The Man Who Knew Infinity, which I read some time ago, and Hardy's elegant essay A Mathematician's Apology, which I read even longer ago (its forward is an account by C.P. Snow of the Hardy he knew, and is reprinted in Snow's entertaining Variety of Men). This book, on the other hand, is a piece of fiction, woven around the facts. It might be thought difficult to make an interesting tale about two mathematicians working on something so abstruse that it's only understood by a handful of people in the world, but the romance of this pairing and the obstacles that stood in their way is more than enough to maintain the attention of the reader.

In addition, there's a host of other characters, who for the most part are all real - and in some cases (e.g. Bertrand Russell, A.A. Milne, D.H. Lawrence) renowned. As if that wasn't enough, the author adds a couple of tales of thwarted love (which he's careful to distinguish as being completely invented) to the mix as well. I did wonder if these additions were gilding the lily, but they're skilfully woven into the fabric as to make it seamless, and help the reader to place themselves into the time and place of this fascinating story.
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on 10 June 2012
Right, it is difficult to engage non-mathematicians who do not have facility in mathematical language in the work of a seminal mathematician. That difficulty is highlighted when one comes to the mathematical formulae scattered throughout the book. So it is a hard task to make Ramanujan understandable when his most significant facet - his work - is not accessible. David Leavitt has made a valiant effort. But I cannot help feeling this novel was doomed to failure if its central goal was to penetrate to an understanding of the mystery of Ramanujan. For all the interesting sidelights (?conjectures) on Ramanujan's emotional or intellectual drives, without an appreciation of his craft he is destined to remain a two-dimensional figure, his "mystery" left intact. Or perhaps (at the risk of over-analyzing)his unresolved mystery as a person was precisely the point - the mystery at the heart of the novel around which the world of Trinity College, WW1 Britain and to a lesser Britain/Britons in its/their relationship to colonial India and Indians revolves. Certainly one gets more of a feeling from the writing for the cloistered world of Cambridge and its own alumni - most preciously in the description of the Apostles - than for Ramanujan himself. But again what banal figures they seem, devoid of their intellectual attainments. Perhaps this is inevitably the case with people whose main preoccupations are internal rather than social. On the upside, the treatment of Russell and other pacifist "enfant terribles" pursuing their own battles with conventionality later in the novel were of interest. It's sobering to reflect how quickly civil rights, taken for granted in liberla democracies, fall victim to mass hysteria, propaganda and state dictatorship on the pretext of war. Still we have it in 2012 - if even more chillingly manipulative and evasive and on the basis of even a "hidden" war. The treatment of Hardy's fumbling gay encounter with Thayer and the treatment of women such as Alice Neville were less successful, in my view, coming across as cliched.

So an "interesting", brave but flawed experiment - a hybrid of fiction and fact but not quite faction either.

Incidentally, the exposition on primes at page 182 of my edition is inaccurate. The non-prime number in the 333.... sequence should be 333333331 - which has a divisor of 17 - and not 33333331, which is also a prime.
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on 6 October 2009
It took me a while to get through this book - I had to put it aside for a few weeks but found it easy enough to get back into. It's very clever, very well researched (Leavitt's own notes in the paperback edition leave you in no doubt about his careful preparation) and very ambitious. I read to the end to find out what happened to the different characters but then thought, "So what?" Interesting possibilities but disappointing outcomes. The American spellings and occasional anachronistic Americanism (e.g., "on weekends") jarred - Edwardian Englishman wouldn't have used certain turns of phrase.
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on 5 July 2014
This book is part factual and part time fiction. It is the story of a genius Mathematician from a humble background in India who is brought to Cambridge University by one of the Dons to study in 1914. The privileged lives of the upper classes who were the overwhelming group at Cambridge University at this time is described in some detail - their snobbery, hypocrisy and elitism. For me the book raised a question - how many clever people from poor backgrounds both then and now never get the chance to study at Cambridge (or indeed Oxford) because they are not born in the right class.
The only small thing I did not like about the book was the written maths equations - not sure why the author wrote them out in full in this way. You would surely need at least a first degree in Maths to understand them!
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on 22 June 2009
I'm surprised this has not been turned into a Brideshead Revisited/Jewel in the Crown-type television series or movie. You can imagine the scenes: soft-focus images of Cambridge colleges in 1913, the repressed homosexual don, Hardy, at breakfast opening the letter from an unknown but highly original Indian mathematician toiling as an underpaid clerk in the Madras Post Office, the Indian's arrival in England from which he soon finds cannot escape as the war breaks out, his mental and physical ailments which lead to his early death and the older Hardy reliving this period in Charles Ryder-style many years later. Characters like Bertrand Russell, Keynes and Wittgenstein appear, providing cameo roles for wannabe or has been actors. Let's hope this film does not come about because, besides all the cliché scenes of vintage cars, punting and picnics on the Cam and angelic choirboys emerging from King's College, it would probably be a politically-correct diatribe involving homosexuality, racism, pacifism and women's role in society.

I enjoyed this book immensely although the scenes involving mathematical theory (mercifully few) were baffling.

The character of Ramanujan, the Tamil mathematician, is thinly sketched, as is the domestic drama involving his leaving his young wife in India under the domestic tyranny of his mother. However, as the narrative is related by an elderly bachelor whose universe consist of the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford, presumably this is deliberate. In fact, this understatement makes the book more convincing and highlights the dramatic moments which are understated to say the least.
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`The man sitting next to the podium appeared to be very old, at least in the eyes of the members of his audience, most of whom were very young.'

GH Hardy, the famous mathematician, is about to receive an honourary degree from Harvard at the start of this novel. But he knows that his audience will want to hear about Ramanujan, the Indian clerk of the title, a mathematical genius and Hardy's protégé. In his speech Hardy says that his association with Ramanujan was `the one romantic incident' in his life.

I'm not quite sure what I think about this genre of historical fiction based on real lives but Leavitt is very good at it. It's well researched, convincing and engaging. It's good on the maths and the search for the proof of Riemann hypothesis for prime numbers and of Cambridge and London just before and during the first world war. It examines class and also the homosexual world at that time - DH Lawrence and Wittgenstein both make an appearance and both seem repulsed by what they see of Cambridge gay society. Bertrand Russell, JM Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Rupert Brooke are fellow apostles, the not so secret society of which Hardy is a member. They have minor roles but help to place this novel in terms of time and place.

Ramanujan and Hardy come from different worlds but both can enter a world of maths which most of us cannot inhabit `a world remote from religion, war, literature, sex, even philosophy' says Hardy and he also states `a slate and some chalk. That's all you need'. Leavitt does a pretty good job of giving us a feel for that and the excitement that goes with it. Except that it turns out that isn't all either of them need. Ramanuajn gets ill in England; it's difficult for him to follow his strict vegetarian diet. He wants the honours and prizes he hasn't had to date. Hardy has fulfilment in his working partnerships with Littlewood and Ramanujan but can't extend that into his personal relationships. It's a strange era, at once more formal than ours and yet one in which friendship between grown men can be expressed by them walking hand in hand through the streets.

Overall, The Indian Clerk is very good but not fully successful - perhaps because Leavitt had to follow the facts or perhaps because Ramanujan remains such an enigma - but it's well worth the read and you even feel like you've grasped some of the maths.
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on 17 July 2016
I felt compelled to write this review now even though I purchased and read the book all the way back in 2008!

This book was recently made into a film (The Man who Knew Infinity) and whilst the film is excellent, as with most things, the book really is a fantastic read and I think better than the screen adaptation. Similar to books such as 'Devil in the White City', this is a fictional book about factual people and set around factual events. It tells the unlikely story of a post room clerk from India who spends his free time teaching himself maths from old text books. By discovering answers to unknown/as yet unsolved proofs and sending them to G.H.Hardy at Cambridge, he is brought over to the UK by Hardy. The book contains other well known academics such as Bertrand Russel and J.M Keynes and you really do gain a sense of the time and place that these significant events occurred in.
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