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The numbers game

The Indian Clerk A Novel David Leavitt Bloomsbury: 496 pp., $24.95

September 02, 2007|Brigitte Frase | Brigitte Frase is working on a memoir about immigration to the U.S. from postwar Germany.

This is a daring novel in a most unusual way. It is as if David Leavitt had challenged himself to novelize the subject most inimical to fiction, and when the eureka moment arrived, it was a vision of -- mathematics!

Of course there are human protagonists, but significant portions of the book are given over to the hunt for the Riemann hypothesis (that "secret order of the primes"), the dazzling partitions formula, the usefulness of complex numbers, the zeta function (having to do with "an infinite number of zeros along the critical line") and highly composite numbers. I'll spare you my feeble attempts at definitions, but never fear; Leavitt explains enough to give readers some understanding of a rarefied and beautifully ordered universe. It is not necessary to read the proofs and formulas sprinkled throughout; one can appreciate them as aesthetic and lucid expressions of a rigorous language. (A mathematician friend tells me Leavitt has all the math right.)

"The Indian Clerk" opens with English mathematician G.H. Hardy (a historical figure like all of the characters in the book, with one wholly invented exception) accepting an award from Harvard in 1936. His speech, celebrating the life and incandescent work of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, almost immediately veers from his remarks to an inner monologue, too personal to utter aloud. The book then alternates between "the lecture [Hardy] did not give" and his painful memories of the period between 1913 and 1920.

Those remembered events are rendered, mostly from Hardy's point of view, in the present tense, another daring choice, because they usually steal the scene with their loud showiness. It works here precisely because it puts us in the moment, bringing history so close that we have the sensation of "eavesdropping" on it, as Leavitt wrote in an essay defending his previous historical novel, "While England Sleeps," from British poet and novelist Stephen Spender's accusation that the writer "stole" Spender's life.

The present tense has another function as well. It foreshadows the rupture to come. The past tense promises a continuity from then to now, but we know that the novel's present will stop abruptly at the abyss of war. We accompany Hardy around Trinity College, Cambridge, as he works in his rooms, dines at the high table with the other dons, notably G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, collaborates on mathematical papers with his colleague J.E. Littlewood, attends Saturday sessions of the Apostles (an exclusive society familiar to many readers because a number of Bloomsbury intellectuals belonged to it) and suffers visits from the ghost of a lover, the classicist Russell Gaye, who committed suicide. One of the novel's themes is homosexuality as it is, mostly, condoned in the university hothouse even as it becomes the subject of pejorative medical and political discourse in the wider society.

One day in January 1913, Hardy receives a packet from a young man who works as an accountant in Madras. Since mathematicians receive more than their share of "radical breakthroughs" from loony amateurs, he is tempted to disregard it. But something pulls him in, and with mounting excitement he realizes that this self-taught Indian clerk has independently rewritten the history of mathematics and is well on his way to solving some of its most alluring and intractable mysteries (see paragraph two).

He brings Ramanujan to Trinity, where the undereducated young man, with his Hindu customs and unfamiliar eating habits, remains painfully isolated. Mathematics transcends life, "tainted neither by religion nor utility. . . in direct opposition to [time]," Hardy believes. But one cannot live by transcendence alone. Reality is capricious, random, indifferent to human happiness, like the malicious God who does not exist and therefore bedevils Hardy all the more.

Ramanujan, who died in London in 1920 at age 33, probably of lead poisoning, is the empty center of the novel, both an unknowable being of infinite complexity (as we like to believe all human beings are)and a zero because he makes nothing happen. Hardy and history are the protagonists Leavitt places in the foreground. Hardy confesses his sins yet remains mysterious because, outside of math, he doesn't understand his own life. He wrestles with invisible but palpable demons.

History arrives with a bludgeon, bringing the carnage of the first world war, which decimated an entire generation and introduced the medical profession, though not the public at large, to a mental condition as traumatic as maimed bodies: the damage of shell shock. The first of the big unnecessary wars, it was fought on the home front with lies and patriotic bullying to cover up the horrific slaughter in the trenches in France. Trinity, like the nation, is torn between gung-ho armchair warriors and antiwar activists, most prominent among them Bertrand Russell, who is jailed as a traitor.

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