Review: The Indian Clerk

January 21, 2008

I cannot recall with clarity how I first became aware of The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. NPR? Amazon? Whatever the case, I am very glad that I followed up on the lead.

The title is in reference to S. Ramanujan, the mathematician. It is a name I had heard, but the name and profession were previously the extent of my knowledge. The book begins with the English maths don G.H. Hardy helping bring Ramanujan over to Cambridge from his post as a minor clerk in Madras. From there it proceeds through introduction to English (academic) society, World War I, and Ramanujan’s illness and early death at 33. This gives nothing away about the story, which is told (mostly) from Hardy’s point of view.

Leavitt has obviously done an incredible amount of research and proves himself both articulate and imaginative. While it took fifty or a hundred pages for me to really get into the book, I suddenly found myself in the grip of a compelling story of humanity. The prose was reminiscent of Fitzgerald with a dash of Steve Weinberg – a mixture of mythos and logos.

The book is about much more than a lonely mathematician and his collaborators. It is also looks deeply into what it means to be English, to be Indian, and even to a small extent to be American (by contrast). What motivates us – to make the daily small decisions, as well as the big exercises in free will that, at least we tell ourselves, tangibly influence the course of our own lives and of others’? From all that we get the many layers of what it is to be human. Plus a smattering of number theory.

There was a poem I was once fond of, perhaps by Shelly. Or was it Tennyson? Something about the hero striving with the gods before his end. Google shall find the answer: ah, Ulysses

Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Here in Leavitt’s work, and in the reality he masterfully fictionalizes, were men who did some deeds of noble note – in the name of knowledge, in the name of peace, in the name of humanity. To strive with gods requires a certain fire, and a rare confluence of ability and circumstance – almost, in the latter, denied to Ramanujan – and in The Indian Clerk we see the pain, the glory, and the human truths when one sets out “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”