A Review of David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (by Bethany)

The more literature I read and the more history I study, the more I realize just how pervasive the Pygmalion story is in Western culture. I see it not only in My Fair Lady and Pinocchio and Stranger in a Strange Land and Pretty Woman and in countless other novels, plays, and films but also in world history. In fact, from the late fifteenth century until somewhere around, oh, next Thursday, much of Europe – and later the United States – enacted this story on a global stage, in a process we usually call imperialism. We will make you just like us, lighter-skinned people said to darker-skinned people all over the globe. Won’t that be fun? Human beings have spent so much time trying to remake others in their own image that I suppose it comes as no surprise that this is the very act that the Judeo-Christian tradition ascribes to God – in other words, we have created, in our own image, a God who created us in His own image, because in our limited human brains we assume that if a deity were all powerful, what else would he want to do all day but create an entire race of miniature versions of Himself? That’s what we would do if we had that kind of power. Circular reasoning, anyone?

The premise of David Leavitt’s meticulously researched historical novel The Indian Clerk is as follows: In the decade prior to World War I – which over and over again the writers of that era describe as something like Eden and Disneyland and Christmas morning all rolled into one – a poor clerk from Madras writes letters to several distinguished mathematics professors in England, hoping to receive some advice and assistance in publishing some of the independent work he has been doing in mathematics – and, specifically, in his attempts to prove the Riemann hypothesis concerning the behavior of prime numbers. He finally receives a reply from Professor G.H. Hardy at Trinity College, Cambridge, who works with a colleague to arrange to bring Ramanujan – that’s the name of the Indian clerk – to Cambridge.

Now, everything I’ve summarized above is part of the historical record, and from what I can glean from my own brief outside research and from reading Leavitt’s extensive notes on his own research, this novel remains remarkably true to the way these events were documented in letters and journals written by its major players. But while many of the minor characters in this novel – Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, A.A. Milne, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and D.H. Lawrence, for example – are familiar to me, I really have no background at all in the history of math, so I was able to forget for stretches of time that I was reading fictionalized history and was able to lose myself in Hardy and Ramanujan as characters.

What follows after Ramanujan arrives at Cambridge is a Pygmalion story of sorts – but only of sorts. His first contact is with Eric and Alice Neville, who actually visited Ramanujan in Madras and helped arrange the details of his passage. Alice Neville is the first to take a Henry Higgins-style interest in Ramanujan, and – as in Shaw’s play – it is not immediately clear whether Alice wants to be the Indian mathematician’s lover or his mother. His arrival does set in action a series of events that leads to a significant cooling in her marriage and a partial separation from her husband, and she does on one occasion kiss Ramanujan – but she also takes an obsessive interest in his eating habits and health that suggests a hovering mother more than a lover or girlfriend.

Ramanujan is just as much of an enigma to the reader as he is to Hardy and the other characters in the novel – not, I think, because of any quality innate to him but because Leavitt only ever allows us to see Ramanujan through the eyes of his other characters. The opacity of almost every character in this novel is a factor of perception, not reality – because, at its heart, this is a novel about brilliant people who have absolutely no idea about how emotions work.

It is also a novel about the relationships between individuals and institutions. The “institutions” represented in this novel are many: Trinity College and its “tripos” exam, the Indian caste system, the British empire, the institution of family and of devotion to parents, the wide variety of late-Victorian social mores and expectations – not to mention the institutions of heterosexuality and marriage. Hardy sets himself up in defiance of some of these institutions when he argues successfully for the reform of the tripos system and then again when he protests his country’s involvement in World War I, but he is never entirely sure how far he is willing to rebel against convention in order to live as a gay man. Hardy spends time with the Cambridge Apostles – a secret society of intellectuals and an even more secret society of gay men – and occasionally arranges no, stumbles into a sexual liaison; most of the time, though, his sex life is something that takes place entirely inside his head and in his memory, in the form of Russell Gaye, a former lover who committed suicide when Hardy spurned him and whose ghost visits Hardy on a semi-regular basis.

(Really, you ask, his name is GAYE? I KNOW. If this character’s name weren’t also part of the historical record, I would accuse Leavitt of extreme preciousness.)

Every single character in this novel reminds me of Lane Pryce in Mad Men: the pasty complexion, the constant blinking and twitching, the dissatisfied wife, the overweening desire to please, the tendency – once every ten years or so – to punch someone. Even Ramanujan fits this mold. Hobbled both by his gratitude to Hardy, Neville, and the others at Cambridge and by his anger that no one in England seems capable of understanding his needs: his vegetarian diet, his inability to be comfortable in form-fitting British clothes and shoes, his loyalty to his teenaged wife back in India, his devotion to Hindu gods and goddesses, his superstitions, his inability to tolerate the cold. When, in the second half of the novel, Ramanujan’s health begins to fail, his diagnosis seems as obvious to me as it is mystifying to his doctors: he is dying of homesickness. He is dying of too much defective love and too little of the real thing; of too much of Alice Neville’s comically bad vegetarian food and not enough lentil curry.

No one in this novel ever fully manages to grow up. Ramanujan is bullied by his domineering mother in spite of the fact that he has crossed the globe and lives in a distinctly pre-Skype era. Hardy is kept anchored to childhood by his dying mother and self-created martyr of a sister but even more so by his own embarrassment over his body and its longings. All of the professors in this novel live in “rooms” (i.e. dorms) and are looked over by a variety of bedmakers, “gyps,” and porters and fed by the university’s dining hall. The ghost of Russell Gaye, from whom much of the wisdom and good sense in this novel emanates, remains ironically perpetually in his early twenties, as do Rupert Brooke and the other men in this novel who die young once the war begins.

This is a good book, but it is also a boring book. (Yes, of course those two qualities can coexist! Hasn’t anyone besides me read Heart of Darkness?) The math in this novel is significantly more compelling than the human beings – but of course it’s right that it should be, since the novel limits itself mostly to Hardy’s point of view, and Hardy finds numbers far more easy to categorize and understand than people. It is a novel about failure at every single level except the academic: it is essentially a novel about a strange adult strain of the infant condition known as Failure to Thrive.

So back to Pygmalion. Let’s say that a sculptor did fall in love with his statue but wanted to avoid all the mistakes made by others in the three thousand-year history of this myth. Well, first of all, he would have to actually love the statue – love it not in the frightened, selfish, or tyrannical forms that love always seems to take in this novel but in the unconditional sense. But is it possible to love a statue that can’t reciprocate that love? Because, unlike Eliza Doolittle, Ramanujan as a character is entirely statue-like – even when Alice Neville kisses him, he remains still, unyielding, and unresponsive. He’s almost a “Bartleby” figure, replying “I would prefer not to” even as he is dying and people are plying him with food and medicine and offers of sterile hospitality. None of the characters in this novel comes close to being able to give or receive the kind of unconditional love this sort of relationship would require. The ghost of Russell Gaye is a tangible symbol of Hardy’s emotional incompetence, as is the pot of slowly rotting lentil soup abandoned on Ramanujan’s stove.

I recommend this novel, but with a few reservations. It is remarkably well written, and its mathematical ideas are well integrated and well explained for those of us not well versed in that discipline. But it is boring, repetitive, and slow – not as a result of any failure of Leavitt’s as a writer, but because the lives of these characters are boring, repetitive, and slow. I was engaged intellectually but never emotionally in this story – but I think that’s the point. The lack of any kind of emotional core to these characters is the fundamental tragic flaw in Ramanujan’s story, and Leavitt renders it well.

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This entry was posted in Authors, David Leavitt, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Review of David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (by Bethany)

  1. MarySF says:

    And all this time I was keeping it a secret that I thought Heart of Darkness was riddled with bore. (Which I read for the first time in my 30s.) I feared it was a sign of my declining intellect.

    • lfpbe says:

      Oh no. That’s a well-known fact. I like the part where he calls a bunch of starving refugees “a bundle of acute angles,” but other than that it’s all tedium.

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