Monday, February 18, 2008

On David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk

This piece appeared yesterday in The Sunday Telegraph.

An intriguing aspect of novels that conscript characters from real life, under their real names, into the world of fiction is the degree to which such books must perform a continuous balancing act to justify their existence. They simultaneously invite judgement for their fidelity to the historical record – for the novelist’s painstaking “research” – and for the cunning of their fiction-making, the private corridors they open off public knowledge.

This is the situation of David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk, which explores the relationship between the protagonists of one of the oddest, but greatest, partnerships in the history of mathematics: the Cambridge don GH Hardy and the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Hardy – fiercely atheist, rationalist, contemptuous of small talk and complacent attitudes, a closet homosexual – brought Ramanujan over to Trinity College in 1914 on the basis of no more than a couple of pleading, eccentric letters full of mathematical hits and misses from the impoverished Indian clerk, and considered his association with him “the one romantic incident in my life”.

Yet Hardy’s relationship with the “Hindoo calculator”, as Ramanujan came to be known in Cambridge circles, was as vexing as it was fulfilling. In Leavitt’s book, as in Robert Kanigel’s widely praised biography of Ramanujan The Man Who Knew Infinity, Hardy is perplexed by Ramanujan’s devotion to the goddess Namagiri (to whom he attributes his flashes of insight) by his childlike and often inscrutable ways, by his unstable mix of highly worldly and unworldly attitudes, and finally by his tragically early death.

Leavitt’s novel begins with a telling scene from 1936. Hardy is about a deliver a lecture at Harvard, but knows that his audience is not as interested in his work as they are in the long-dead Ramanujan. The Indian Clerk has something like the same relationship with readers’ expectations: we want Ramanujan, but get Hardy. At times the narration advances upon the voice of Hardy and at times from above him, steadily enfolding the lives of a host of brilliant supporting characters (some “real”, some Leavitt’s inventions), but it never allows us private access to Ramanujan’s thoughts. Although characters can be just as interesting when information about them is withheld as they are when it is supplied, the reader is likely to chafe at this unequal division, especially since Hardy is such a cold fish.

But this strategy does allow Leavitt to set up one of the most sublime and affecting moves in a novelist’s repertoire, which is a change in a character’s long-settled voice in response to changing circumstances. As the First World War (“the Great War” to Hardy) begins, Cambridge is emptied of its able-bodied men, the mood of crisis invades even the most innocuous act of social intercourse, and life limps along in Trinity College, the cadences of Hardy’s clipped and unemotional sentences open out slowly and make for a more yearning, wondering sound that captivates the ear. Many things in this newly stricken world – including the troubles of his moping Indian friend, longing for home and family – surprise Hardy and move him, and as it shuttles around the lives and worries of its Cambridge set, once close-knit but now widely dispersed, Leavitt’s novel also worries itself into being.

And here is a link to a long interview with Leavitt at The Elegant Variation ("Point of view is my obsession. I love the intimacy of first person, and I also love the scope and latitude of third person").

Unfortunately I don't have the book on me as I'm travelling, else I've have quoted a couple of passages from it. But I thought it work of an enviably high order, and recommend it unhesitatingly.

Update, Feb.28 - And here is a paragraph from the novel, from Part 5, "A Terrible Dreaming". The war has begun; many Cambridge men have been enlisted and have fallen on the battlefields of France. Hardy has chosen not to volunteer, and is reduced to reading "the lists of the Cambridge dead that the Cambridge magazine published", and trying to insert his name "among those of the men from Trinity, all of whom, of course, I had known, at least by sight, and some of whom I had taught". Trinity has been emptied out, although a camp for the wounded has been set up in Nevile's Court. "Hermione" in this passage is the cat beloved of Hardy and his late partner Gaye; Hardy's mother is "half out of her mind" because of old age, not because of the war:
Early that winter I was sitting, one morning, reading in my rooms, with Hermione on my lap, awaiting Ramanujan. I looked up and saw that the first snow was falling. And somehow its innocence, its seeming obliviousness to the condition of the world, moved me and saddened me. For possibly the snow was falling also on the riven farmland of France and Belgium, falling into the trenches in which the soldiers waited for what might be their last sunset. And it was falling on Nevile's Court, to be gazed upon by the injured lying in their camp beds. And it was falling in Cranleigh, where my mother, half out of her mind, watched it through her bedroom window, and my sister through the window of a classroom in which uniformed girls were painting a vase of flowers. Lifting Hermione off my lap, I got up and walked to the window. It was still warm enough outside that the snow didn't stick; it melted instantly when it touched the ground. And there, standing in the court below me, was Ramanujan. The flakes melted on his face and ran down his cheeks. He stood there like that for a full five minutes. And then I realized that this must have been the first time in his life that he had seen snow.

A man watches snow, imagines a fractured world and within it his near and dear ones briefly brought together by the experience of watching the same snow, and then sees another man standing under the snow and realises how different his reading of that snow - and by extension the war - must be. This is a passage aglow with the moral sympathy that is one of the reasons why novelistic narrative, even if it contains little or no factual content, asks at its very best to be taken as a branch of knowledge.


equivocal said...

"Leavitt’s novel also worries itself into being" is a phrase of an enviably high order-- and a lot of the other writing in this review too.

Chandrahas said...

Equivocal - Thank you for your very kind words. As you know there is nothing more thrilling - and nothing that rouses one's own language so much - as great art.

Rohit Thombre said...

I second Equivocal and think that was one of your frequently beautiful turns of phrase. While the comparison is probably of the apples and oranges variety, I couldn't help thinking that despite being non-fiction, Kanigel's book was the more gripping one. The vivid descriptions of South India and the stronger emphasis on the mathematics and Ramanajun made it so, I guess. That said, Leavitt gives an excellent glimpse into the unique world of Cambridge and The Apostles in the early 20th. As an economist, Keynes's 'character' seemed highly incongruous and entertaining. Hardy's circumscribed (dare one say constipated) existence comes across wonderfully although Alice seemed vaguely annoying, possibly Leavitt intended for her to be so. But of course, the novel would have had very little movement without her. Looking forward to your book!

Chandrahas said...

Rohit - Your instincts are correct. For a long way into the book I myself was persuaded that a close nonfictional exploration like Kanigel's would actually be the better work.

It's only when Leavitt's adroit management of point of view begins to kick in and the language works itself up into that beautiful and totally distinctive sound that the book begins to spend freely of itself, after having paid off its debts to the historical record, as it were.

For this reason I thought Alice Neville, whose voice and preoccupations Leavitt invents from scratch, the most vibrant character in the first half of the book, though from that point on almost everybody pulled his or her weight.

I loved some of the walk-ons of great names too, particularly the DH Lawrence episode and the pages devoted to Hardy's cynical appraisal of the Bertrand Russell controversy. I shall rework this post in a week to give some sense of the flavour of the prose.

It's good to see the close attention with which you've read the book, and thank you also for your attention to the minute details of my piece. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on my book.

amit varma said...

Lovely review, Hash, and fine excerpt at the end. The image of falling snow reminded me of the short story ending that I love more than any other:

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Chandrahas said...

Amit - This is a very fine passage. I must confess I have never read Dubliners, although it's always been on my mental map. It is curious how the watchers in both Joyce and Leavitt are made sombre by snow: so temporary itself, it seems to call the to mind all the transience of living things. I would have searched for some comparable passage in Orhan Pamuk's Snow(which I am sure must exist, as that too is a melancholy book) but unfortunately I packed it away when I moved to this super-small place in September. Maybe other readers have examples they wish to proffer.

Hari said...

Hi Hash,

I am sure there are other passages in Pamuk's Snow, but this one early in the book caught my attention:

"Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars it no longer promised innocence. The snow here was tiring, irritating, terrorizing. It had snowed all night. It continued snowing all morning, while Ka walked the streets playing the intrepid reporter – visiting coffeehouses packed with unemployed Kurds, interviewing voters, taking notes – and it was still snowing later, when he climbed the steep and frozen streets…But it [the snow] no longer took him back to the white-covered streets of his childhood; no longer did he think, as he had done as a child standing at the windows of the sturdy houses of Nisantas, that he was peering into a fairy tale; no longer was he returned to a place where he could enjoy the middle-class life he missed too much even to visit in his dreams. Instead the snow spoke to him of hopelessness and misery."

Chandrahas said...

Hari - Excellent choice of passage.

One day when I am rich I am going to throw a grand party for readers of the Middle Stage, and everyone will get a beautiful book to take home with them. I will also cook prawn curry and chicken in a tomato and cashew gravy, and to drink there will be bottles upon bottles of the sensational wine that I downed at three am one evening in Delhi last week at a pre-nuptial party to which I was not invited but which I ended up attending.

If I am rich enough I will even order snow for this party, and it will come floating down from the roof of my building, released from there by a band of minions. Then finally we shall have a snow that makes everyone happy.

Anirudh said...

This is to remind you that I still read The Middle Stage regularly - whatever you might presume seeing the absence of my comments - and expect to partake of the prawn curry that evening. (I suggest you give away copies of the books that you have written of on the blog.)

Space Bar said...

There are pre-nup parties now?!


And I'm making a list of books you own that I want. Have that party quickly!

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - You will certainly be invited, don't worry. I'll get up early and go to the fish market at Mahim to make sure I get the best prawns.

Space Bar - No no, everyone who comes will get a book specially chosen for them. My collection stays as it is.