Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Indian Clerk, David Leavitt

This dandy-ish fellow, who has a scholarly look because of book and glasses, is G. H. Hardy, one of the great mathematicians of the early 20th century, a don a Trinity College, Cambridge. I don't at all understand what he accomplished, but the book I just finished [thanks to the loan by a friend], a novelized biography, by David Leavitt, emphasizes his recognition of an Indian mathematician who was stuck in a do-nothing job as a clerk. Ramanujan was, Hardy thought, possibly the most brilliant mathematician of the 20th century. But he had next to no formal education. Hardy saw that Ramanujan was brought to Cambridge where they worked together, and wrote some jointly authored papers. The name of the book is appropriately, The Indian Clerk.

This does not sound like an interesting book. Of course not. The book is a picture of life in that rarefied atmosphere just before and during WWI, peripheral characters are Bertrand Russell, D.H.Lawrence, some of the Bloomsbury group, and, very incidentally Winnie the Pooh. Most touching to me was the utter inability of Hardy and Ramanujan to communicate in any way except about mathematics. Also very painful to read was the ignorance of the medical treatment given Ramanujan when he became ill and finally, just after the war, was able to go home and die.

The book is thick and dense; such books, if they are well written, as this one very definitely is, immerse the reader in a world s/he would not know otherwise. A novelist cannot create a past world he did not live in with total fidelity but that is really only a quibble to the reader. At least it is when the novelist is a serious person of real intelligence with much research under his belt who is trying to make a world that is totally believable. I remember only one moment when something pricked me out of complete surrender and I thought, I don't think that could be correct -- and now I don't even remember what it was, it's lost in all the rest that I happily believed.


Kass said...

That was a great review! How long does it usually take you to read a book? It seems like you read A LOT!

Jonas said...

My goodness, Woman, what a mind you possess!

Thank you for sharing.

June Calender said...

Kass, I'm a slow reader but I read a lot - average 65-70 books a year and newspapers, magazines, blogs.

Jonas, that's a lovely compliment. Thank you.

LimesNow said...

What a review, June! You just nabbed me with your rich language and my love of all things British and Bloomsbury and Edwardian. (Pets named Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury.) I believe I'll stop at Barnes & Noble on the way home. . . I need a book to carry into the desert and keep me company.