EPS Review #173 - The Indian Clerk

The Indian Clerk: A Novel, by David Leavitt, Bloomsbury 2007, 485pp.

This was an excellent gift from Susan, with mathematical, Indian and English interest. The story of the poor, brilliant Indian mathematician Ramanujan and his invitation to Cambridge by Hardy, followed by Ramanujan's early death, begs for a good telling. And a novel should be a more gripping read than a biography.

So it is too bad that the writing is cruelly, cruelly boring. Leavitt writes in the style of Henry James, who (based on a sample of two!) perhaps has a fascination for gay authors (Hardy was gay -- not clear about Ramanujan). There are long passages about subtle interior states. Hardy often converses with the ghost of his dead lover, who visits his rooms at Cambridge. And Hardy gives imaginary speeches about his past. There is so much interesting material: Bertrand Russell, the Cambridge Apostles (had not heard of them), resistance to the war, and so on, but it is all buried under verbiage. I got very little sense of Ramanujan, except as high-strung and finicky about his diet. I admit that I skimmed the book a bit, but this made matters worse, as interesting parts or actual action were hard to find.

To be fair, the author was not afraid to put in a few formulae, and did not waste time explaining what primes are. But everybody knows that Ramanujan was a whiz with infinite series and continued fractions -- it would have been worth exploring in more detail his impact on mathematics as a whole.

In the acknowledgments, Leavitt recommends The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. That must certainly be a better book to try if the subject interests you.

Scott wrote: I've read The Man Who Knew Infinity, it is very good.