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Passage from India for a math genius

David Leavitt builds a novel around the life of English mathematician G.H. Hardy.

On the last Tuesday in January in 1913, Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy opened his mail and got the shock of his life. (No, it wasn't his heating bill.) Inside was a 10-page letter from a clerk in Madras, India, claiming to be an undiscovered mathematical genius.

More startlingly, both Dr. Hardy and his longtime collaborator, J.E. Littlewood ("as Byronic as it's possible for a mathematician to be") agree with the self-assessment of Srinivasa Ramanujan. In fact, despite the incredulity and racism of some of his colleagues, Hardy believes Ramanujan may be the "greatest mathematician of the last 100 years. Possibly the last 500," and he and Mr. Littlewood take steps to bring him to England. Looking back, Hardy called his association with Ramanujan "the one romantic incident in my life."

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In his new novel, The Indian Clerk, David Leavitt chronicles the impact Ramanujan had on Hardy. "The Indian Clerk" is erudite and well researched, and Leavitt writes about pure mathematics in a way that won't utterly baffle those of us who didn't get beyond pre-calculus in high school. But Ramanujan himself remains elusive.

That's partly because Leavitt chronicles Ramanujan's years in England (which were cut short by ill health) chiefly through the lens of various white people around him. The limitations of this become most noticeable (and most frustrating) when Alice Neville, the wife of the man sent to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge, serves as the scrying glass. The pace of the novel – never exactly breakneck – flags in these chapters. Leavitt can't seem to muster much affection for or interest in Alice. And her crush on Ramanujan is played out in ways both inexplicable and pathetic.

Leavitt does get at the beauty of mathematics and the hypnotic quality it had for both Hardy and Ramanujan. "The Indian Clerk" needs just a few more chapters like the one in which Ramanujan gets sidetracked from cooking (and eating) when he spills a few lentils and becomes entranced by calculating all the ways they can be divided. Or when Ramanujan explains his passion for highly composite numbers to Hardy (who prefers primes). Also, the number 32,671, which Hardy loves for no reason.

"A beautiful proof should be as slender as one of Shelley's odes, and, like an ode, it should imply vastnesses," Hardy explains to the reader in one of several comparisons that likens math to poetry.

At one point, Leavitt cites one of Hardy's theories that when it came to mathematics, "its uselessness was its majesty." As Leavitt notes, that's partly because pure mathematics can't be used for warfare. But all in all, it's rather a cold argument.

In general, Leavitt characterizes Hardy as self-centered, chilly, and isolated, and there's little hint of the generosity that led him to help an impoverished genius halfway around the world.

In addition to math and World War I from the viewpoint of academia, the other major focus of "The Indian Clerk" is early 20th-century British attitudes toward homosexuality – not surprising given its focus on Hardy. Littlewood always maintained that Hardy was a "non-practicing homosexual." In his novel, Leavitt explicitly refutes the nonpracticing part of that statement. Leavitt also chronicles the risqué geniuses of Cambridge's famed "Apostles" club – members included John Maynard Keyes, Lytton Strachey, Hardy, and Rupert Brooke – and D.H. Lawrence's 1915 visit to the college.

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Depictions of incidents such as Bertrand Russell's sacking from Cambridge and subsequent imprisonment for his pacifist activities will interest mathematicians and historians alike. But, as Hardy says at one point, "Ideas and ideals have a homey smell, rather like coffee. And yet in the background there always lurks this housekeeper with her ammonia and her matches."

Unfortunately, "The Indian Clerk" too often succumbs to the antiseptic.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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