The Indian Clerk

The standards used to assess a new work of fiction’s success — pacing, immediacy of characterization, shapeliness of plot — often avoid the deeper character of the novel at hand, to say nothing of the pleasures peculiar to the novel form: chief among them is the immersion in a world of apprehensions, personalities, and shifting realities as the reader wanders, acquiring intelligence — or merely things to ponder — along the way. A novel doesn’t always have to compel attention to reward it; that’s one of the differences between literature and the movies. David Leavitt’s eighth novel offers such distinctive novelistic rewards. The stage for its exploration of ideas, sexual identity, and class distinctions is set in January 1913, when mathematician and Cambridge don G. H. Hardy receives a curious letter from one S. Ramanujan, an obscure Indian clerk who will turn out to be one of the great mathematical thinkers of the era (in outline, the core of Leavitt’s tale is true). As famous figures (Bertrand Russell, D. H. Lawrence), momentous events (World War I), and deftly described mathematical ideas are woven into the melancholy tale of Ramanujan’s astonishing Cambridge sojourn and Hardy’s perplexed emotional life, the reader is transported — courtesy of Leavitt’s evocative prose — to a plane of perception suffused with slowly unfolding satisfactions. –