The Indian Clerk

Written by David Leavitt
Review by Adelaida Lower

The first issue a historical fiction writer needs to solve is how much research to include. Too little and the work lacks foundation; too much and it sinks under its weight. It is a difficult balance, a balance David Leavitt does not achieve in his 12th novel, The Indian Clerk. Past legal troubles with an earlier work (While England Sleeps) may have contributed to the dilemma. To be sued, lose in court, and have to edit an already published novel must be hard to forget. Regrettably, this novel shows it.

In the winter of 1915, Cambridge University mathematician G.H. Hardy receives an extraordinary letter from Srinivasa Ramanujan, a clerk in India. In spite of Ramanujan’s lack of formal education, the tidbits of the work he sends make Hardy believe the Indian is a genius. Intrigued, Hardy decides to bring him to England. But when Ramanujan is finally convinced to make the journey, their only connection is mathematics. Hardy is “a man of habit,” a self-regarding atheist, and a repressed homosexual. The handsome Ramanujan is an orthodox high-caste Hindu, a married man, and a devotee of the goddess Namagiri.

Leavitt sets this historical collaboration against a background of colonialism, prejudices, and sexual identity. He works with fascinating material. The Cambridge Apostles, the secret intellectual society to which Hardy belongs, has members such as John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, and Rupert Brooke. World War I brings strains, challenges, and disruption. There are appearances by D. H. Lawrence and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Throughout, Leavitt stays very close to his sources. He allows himself few flights of fancy and very little literary license. The result is a scholarly novel with little color and a sluggish pace.