Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Indian Clerk

The Indian Clerk has, as its template, the famed partnership of Cambridge don Godfrey Harold Hardy and an Indian clerk, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was invited by Hardy to Cambridge after receiving a letter from him that illustrated Ramanujan's latent genius. The Hardy-Ramanujan association resulted in many fruitful discoveries in the fields of continued fractions and infinite series.

But at its heart, The Indian Clerk is not about Ramanujan, but his mentor. Until that fateful day in 1913, when Hardy received Ramanujan's letter, he had been collaborating with John Edensor Littlewood on the Riemann hypothesis. Ramanujan's letter contained obscure equations and inexplicable formulas. He had derived without assistance what the greatest mathematicians of Cambridge were working on using the zeta function.

Leavitt expertly brings the spirit of Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology to life with the episode of Hardy explaining a dumbfounded Littlewood the feat Ramanujan had accomplished. All his life, Hardy championed his love for pure math, not the applied kind whose avowed goal is to generate something useful. To him, the uselessness of pure math opened the floodgates of such notions of beauty that were beguiling in their own right.

Hardy believed the mathematical aesthetic is appealing because it allows space to obscure numbers and out-of-turn events. Math allows such inconsistencies to join together in a force of pleasing serendipity, a fact that resonated with Hardy's own life.

Hardy's sister Gertrude never married, but that does not imply she was gay, like Hardy. Nevertheless, she is portrayed as mannish and distant. The close intimacy between the siblings nearly makes for the simulacrum of a love triangle, with Gaye, Hardy's dead lover whose bust adorns their living room, making the third pole.

There is a slender discourse on how everything belonging to Gaye was taken away from Hardy's possession after Gaye's death. Excepting the bust, with its penetrating eyes, looking on with a "gaze so steady and merciless you could have sworn it was seeing." When Eric Neville and his wife Alice (who play a salutary role in convincing a skeptical Ramanujan to move to England) come to visit the brother-sister duo, Gertrude is described as following her brother's movements with her good eye, and looking fixedly at the bust with the glass one.

The really intimate moments of contact happen only between members of the same sex, while marital lives are, at best, fraught with the danger of dilution. When Alice goes to meet Gertrude at her house in London, there is a sudden urgency to her visit. The First World War looming in the horizon and Alice's loneliness during a journey interspersed with reading reports of German brutalities, lend a certain sense of doom that permeates the text as Gertrude opens the door of the rented accommodation. But soon enough, she falls into a sort of compromised amicability with Alice, taking off and showing her her glass eye and later, even inviting her to a visit to the zoo.

Heterosexual relationships end in grief, like the luckless love affair of Littlewood and Anne Chase, a married woman. But it is not ennobling grief, the kind Hardy experiences at Gaye's passing and subsequent returns — a phantom who appears at any and all times, rubbing salt over Hardy's wounds, seeking vengeance for his failed chances by imploring Hardy to live, to seek, to whatever it takes to honor the memory of his suicide. No, it's not that kind of grief; it's the kind that sickens, that binds one to the lashings of fate — unsung, unacknowledged.

It is in the book's second half that we begin to hear Ramanujan's voice, who until then, comes across as a primordial ape bumped into an unknown culture. Weighed down by the demands of his religion that prohibited consumption of meat, Ramanujan faces myriad troubles in adjusting to life in England, not the least of which is the frigid climate.

He is desperate for recognition, going so far as to seek a B.A. in math at Trinity, when his talent far supercedes any such qualification. He is temperamental and has issues with women, from whom he expects a sort of benevolent servitude, which when disrupted, has him erupt in flashes of morbid anger. His declining health exacerbates his terrible loneliness — one might even say his heterosexual loneliness which Hardy fails to glean.

Like Gustav von Aschenbach's doomed love for a teenage boy in Death in Venice, Hardy's feelings for Ramanujan aren't straightforward. He is slyly expectant of Ramanujan's impending death. As Andrew O'Hehir expatiates in his incisive essay "Just how gay is 'Death in Venice'?" in Salon,

Aschenbach almost seems convinced he has created the boy himself, out of "austere and pure will." Perhaps he has. Here and elsewhere, Tadzio is described as a piece of classical statuary, a mythical or godlike figure who is pale and translucent, indeed almost dead. (At two different points Aschenbach imagines that Tadzio will not live long, which he finds a satisfying, even pleasant notion.)

Hardy too is possessive of Ramanujan and nearly insouciant about his ill health: "While he continued to refer to the impending trip [to India] as 'a visit,' I think I knew, even then, that he was going to die." Yet, there is a crucial difference between The Indian Clerk and Thomas Mann's novella. It is Hardy, the lover, who survives here, while the object of affection succumbs.

So, what about death? The book is interspersed with Hardy's lecture at Harvard in 1936 — the one he did not give, as Leavitt reminds us too often — "all the while writing equations on the board and disquisiting, with his voice, on hypergeometric series." Initially, the lectures give off homoerotic longings and heartache, but later, they make interesting reading on the First World War; how it affected England, and especially Cambridge. Even so, one such account develops into an erotic fantasy, of a wounded Hardy being tended to by handsome doctors on the battlefield. "Somehow I dreamed, even gloried in, the possibility of my own death," he says.

This quest for death (albeit erotically handed), Gaye's visitations — benevolent Gaye, merciless Gaye, a charge of pure emotion, riding roughshod on Hardy's imitation of a life — all these point to a fascination for annihilation. Hardy's solitariness is an outcome of his being gay. There are signs of inversion here. He is nearly thankful for the abnormality because it suits his temperament; in fact, the absence of sexual attraction for the opposite sex has relieved him of the conventional constructs of marriage and domesticity. Death then — ritualistic, metaphorical death — as a more welcoming proposition than life. Not a cry for pity this, but the supreme manifestation of self-importance, to the point of narcissism. Narcissism, another gay trope. There you are!

The Indian Clerk is first-rate social commentary, a novel of manners densely peopled by the finest minds of the Edwardian era, playwrights and littérateurs, philosophers and economists a period too brief to matter, and all the more enticing for it.

David Leavitt

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