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The Indian Clerk: A Novel Paperback – September 16, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ambitious, erudite and well-sourced, Leavitt's 12th work of fiction centers on the relationship between mathematicians G.H. Hardy (1877–1947) and Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920). In January of 1913, Cambridge-based Hardy receives a nine-page letter filled with prime number theorems from S. Ramanujan, a young accounts clerk in Madras. Intrigued, Hardy consults his colleague and collaborator, J.E. Littlewood; the two soon decide Ramanujan is a mathematical genius and that he should emigrate to Cambridge to work with them. Hardy recruits the young, eager don, Eric Neville, and his wife, Alice, to travel to India and expedite Ramanujan's arrival; Alice's changing affections, WWI and Ramanujan's enigmatic ailments add obstacles. Meanwhile, Hardy, a reclusive scholar and closeted homosexual, narrates a second story line cast as a series of 1936 Harvard lectures, some of them imagined. Ramanujan comes to renown as the the Hindu calculator discussions of mathematics and bits of Cambridge's often risqué academic culture (including D.H. Lawrence's 1915 visit) add authenticity. Hardy is hardly likable, however, and Leavitt (While England Sleeps, etc.) packs too much into the epic-length proceedings, at the expense of pace. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Based on a lecture given by a real-life Hardy in 1913, this intellectual and historical novel explores the beauty of mathematics, the nature of creativity, sexual repression, class relations, and the frailty of human connection-all set against the decline of empire and war. David Leavitt, best known for While England Sleeps (1993), impressed critics with his research and the novel's accessibility; even his discussions of the Riemann hypothesis and the secret order of the primes offered them interest. Leavitt depicts his characters, however, less successfully. A few reviewers complained about Ramanujan's ambiguity, questioned his decision to characterize Hardy as gay, and criticized cameos of historical figures such as D. H. Lawrence. The Indian Clerk is a flawed but intriguing look into the zeitgeist of the British Empire in the early 20th century.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596910410
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596910416
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #531,406 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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75 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Steve Koss VINE VOICE on September 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A fictionalized account centered on the relationship of the great British mathematician G.H. Hardy and his even greater "discovered" protégé, Srinivasa Ramanujan, offers rich possibilities. The story presents ample opportunity for exploration and comparison of Hardy's academically cultivated genius versus Ramanujan's more raw and naturalistic or (divinely?) inspired form, the power relationship between mentor and mentee, the color divide between English and Indian, the hangover of imperialism in the England/India relationship, the role of race prejudice in science and mathematics, cultural differences, early feminism, and sexual orientation.

To his credit, author David Leavitt does indeed tackle many of these issues in THE INDIAN CLERK. Following more or less chronologically the historical record of the Hardy-Ramanujan collaborations at Cambridge, Leavitt retells the story largely through Hardy's blindered eyes. Leavitt opens with the Englishman's first receipt of Ramanujan's unsolicited mathematical writings and closes more or less with the Indian mathematician's return to Madras not long before his premature death. In between, there are mathematical collaborations, cultural adaptations, battles with illness, honors and awards given or refused, and a profound sense of emotional isolation for both men. However, because we see these events from Hardy's emotionally stunted perspective, we never really get to know Mr. Ramanujan.
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on October 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When the Indian mathematician Ramanujan lay seriously ill he was visited by the English mathematician G.H. Hardy who remarked that the taxi he rode over in was number 1729, "a rather dull number." Not so, responded Ramanujan, it's the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.

This is a fictional biography of those two men, who stood out as great mathematicians of the early 20th century. Hardy felt that Ramanujan was perhaps one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Sad, then, that Ramanujan died at the age of 33. The reader profits in two ways from this book as it is an elegantly literate novel, and it provides a great deal of accurate information about these two men's lives (Leavitt provides a 6 page bibliography at the end of the book).

It's a book by David Leavitt, and thus you will find his usual references to the gay life. Well actually it sometimes seems as if most of the characters are gay. That shouldn't bother the average straight reader, though, as you quickly become absorbed in the life of these two men. Famous personages of the time such as Bertrand Russell, and Lytton Strachey wander in and out of the story. Ludwig Wittgenstein also plays a cameo role. World War I makes a somber appearance, and has its effect on the principals.

Ramanujan, a self taught mathematician, is brought from India to Cambridge by Hardy who fills the role of Ramanujan's tutor. Mr. Leavitt does an excellent job of showing how the Indian struggles to adapt to the English way of life. There is a lot of humor in this as kindly hosts try to make edible vegetarian meals for him. English food is often bad enough as it is (I lived there for a few years), and the veggie meals were disasters.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By E. Goldstein on January 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The story has been told before. Not long before the first World War, G. H. Hardy, the well-known English mathematician, receives a letter from an unknown Indian clerk asking Hardy to review and comment on certain mathematical results. Hardy consults with J. E.Littlewood, another eminent mathematician, and together they decide the Indian might be a self-taught mathematical genius. After trial and tribulation they manage to get the Indian to Cambridge. Hardy and the Indian genius collaborate on some outstanding mathematical papers. The genius, far from home and comfort and family, gets sick, and returns to India to die. As for Hardy--Hardy has the satisfaction of knowing that he worked on nearly equal terms with the great Ramanujan.

A subtext of the story is that mathematical genius, like musical genius, is hard-wired in from a very early age. The corollary is that unless the genius is smothered or suppressed, it somehow gushes forth, like water.

In some sense "The Indian Clerk" is a historical novel, but then in some sense "Troilus and Cressida" is a tale about the Trojan War. David Leavitt, in telling a rousing good story, is poking and prodding and trying to figure something out. What exactly? Maybe he is drawing a parallel between mathematicians and homosexuals, both so formed before conscious choice kicks in. That's an element, but it doesn't go far to explain the book. Time and again, particularly in talking about the relationship of John Littlewood and Anne Chase, Leavitt plays with the tension between the human need to be connected and the human need to be unconstrained. But that's not what the book is "about.
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