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.