Wednesday, August 29, 2007

New Novel About Ramanujan -- "The Indian Clerk"

There's a new novel about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan by David Leavitt; it's called The Indian Clerk. Leavitt appears to be working with the approach taken by Pat Barker and others, in producing a fiction that is strongly based on actual facts, and which is the product of his own extensive research on the relationship between Ramanujan and the British mathematician G.H. Hardy.

The blog The Elegant Variation recently had an extensive series of posts dedicated to the book, including a long excerpt here and an interview here. I haven't read it yet, though I'll definitely be looking for it the next time I am in a bookstore. Here are a couple of paragraphs, from immediately after G.H. Hardy receives his first letter from Ramanujan in Madras, with several pages of groundbreaking mathematical proofs attached:

Hardy shifts Hermione, much to her annoyance, off his lap, then gets up and moves to his windows. Beneath him, two gowned undergraduates stroll arm in arm toward the archway. Watching them, he thinks of asymptotes, values converging as they near a sum they will never reach: a half foot closer, then a quarter foot, then an eighth… One moment he can almost reach out and touch them, the next—whoosh—they're gone, sucked up by infinity. Now there's a divergent series for you. The envelope from India has left a curious smell on his fingers, of soot and what he thinks might be curry. The paper is cheap. In two places the ink has run.

This is not the first time that Hardy had received letters from strangers. For all its remoteness from the ordinary world, pure mathematics holds a mysterious attraction for cranks of all stripes. Some of the men who have written to Hardy are genuine lunatics, claiming to have in their hands formulae pointing to the location of the lost continent of Atlantis, or to have discovered cryptograms in the plays of Shakespeare indicating a Jewish conspiracy to defraud England. Most, though, are merely amateurs whom mathematics has fooled into believing that they have found solutions to the most famous unsolved problems. I have completed the long-sought proof to Goldbach's Conjecture—Goldbach's Conjecture, stating simply that any even number greater than two could be expressed as the sum of two primes. Needless to say I am loath to send my actual proof, lest it fall into the hands of one who might publish it as his own…Experience suggests that this Ramanujan falls into the latter category. Being poor—as if mathematics has ever made anyone rich! I have not given the actual investigations nor the expressions that I get—as if all the dons of Cambridge are waiting with baited breath to receive them!

Nine dense pages of mathematics accompany the letter. Sitting down again, Hardy looks them over. At first glance, the complex array of numbers, letters, and symbols suggests a passing familiarity with, if not a fluency in, the language of his discipline. Yet how strangely the Indian uses that language! What he is reading, Hardy thinks, is the equivalent of English spoken by a foreigner who has taught the tongue to himself. (link)

Personally I find this type of approach -- using the novel to work as an outlet for research on real historical problems -- very rewarding. Teaching Barker's Regeneration last spring, I found found that students got a lot out of the cross-referencing of actual historical documents (i.e., relating to Siegfried Sassoon and the development of modern psychology) with the literary text at hand.

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Blogger Feanor said...


I must say you've got a mighty fine literary blog here. Learned a thing or two myself from casual browsing. With respect to the Ramanujam book, I wonder if the excerpt you chose is representative of the book as a whole (haven't read it)? Perusing the link you provide to the extended extract, I think the mathematical bits seem rather forced and break the flow of the text. Isn't fictionalising a biography - especially a technical biography - a rather fraught task? Peter Ackroyd got a lot of flak for his book on Dickens, so how would this book fare?

More egregiously, to my mind, it appears that the factoids are constantly being shoehorned into the narrative. (E.g. the bits about Goldbach, the Bohr quip on English mathematicians, the whole thing about Russell and his work and halitosis).

Hard scifi authors such as Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter have weaved cutting-edge science (explained brilliantly and then extrapolated breathtakingly) into fine narratives, and that approach seems more natural than this by Leavitt.

What do you think?

7:47 AM  
Blogger Ed said...


I have an review copy of Indian Clerk that I'm unlikely to get to. You can have it. I'll drop it in your mailbox at Lehigh next week.

Ed Pettit

12:15 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Feanor, interesting points. I haven't read the Ackroyd version of Dickens, but I might check it out.

I didn't mind the equations, I guess because they were like interesting puzzles that force one to stop and think -- hm, do I get this, can I get this? And I didn't mind the shoehorning of factual material, partly because a lot of it is new to me.

In general, I think this particular sub-genre (call it "bio-fiction"?) is ok, as long as the author is clear with readers about what he or she is doing. In the old days, there was a whole genre of fictional biography where biographers wrote in novelistic bits at their discretion. Today's readers generally won't accept that (we put too much stock in verifiability), so people instead write "novels"...

1:01 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Ed, thanks, that would be cool.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Narayan said...

I read Robert Kanigel's "The Man Who Knew Infinity : A Life of the Genius Ramanujan" in '93, two years after it came out. As a child I was constantly reminded of Ramanujan (as I am sure happened in all Southie families) as someone to aspire to by excelling in Maths. I thought all along that only Southies knew about the man. In my thirties, I tried to read Hardy's book on Ramanujan and found it tough going and not inspiring at all (save for a weird footnote explaining the principle "Lectio Dificilio Potior", a counterbalance to Occam's Razor, which I recently rediscovered on Wikipedia). And in my late fifties I bumped into Ramanujan himself while wrestling with a problem in cartography. Blissfully unaware of his elegant single term, closed form approximation, the US Govt's bible on map projections to this day insists on the use of a laborious series approximation for the circumference of the Earth-ellipse.

Kanigel's book is a masterpiece. An exemplar of the genre, his biography is a page turner. I marvel at Kanigel himself. In page after page he proves his dedication to his subject in a way that no other Westerner seems to have when writing about India or Indians. You know that this man is no armchair traveler; he has gone to South India and spoken to people first hand; he cites many Indian sources; his rendering of South Indian names, customs, and ambience are impeccable. I can find no fault.

And now that we have Leavitt's book, I am wondering how anyone might possibly outdo Kanigel's stranger-than-fiction story, either in style or substance An excerpt from Robert Kanigel's "The Man Who Knew Infinity", for comparison with the quotation from Leavitt's book, concerns Hardy's first 'encounter' with the genius :

"The whole letter, all ten pages of it, was written out in large, legible, rounded schoolboy script distinguished only by crossed t's that didn't cross. His handwriting had always been neat; but here, if possible, it was neater still, as if he realized the gulf of skepticism that divided him from Hardy and dared not let an illegible scrawl widen it.
"It was a wise precaution; the gulf was indeed great. For Hardy, Ramanujan's pages of theorems were like an alien forest whose trees were familiar enough to call trees, yet so strange they seemed to have come from another planet; it was the strangeness of Ramanujan's theorems that struck him first, not their brilliance. The Indian he supposed, was just another crank. He was forever getting bizarre manuscripts from strangers that, as his friend Snow later put it. 'pretended to prove the prophetic wisdom of the Great Pyramid, the revelations of the Elders of Zion, or the cryptograms that Bacon had inserted in the plays of the so-called Shakespeare'."
(Kanigel, Chap.5, "I Beg to Introduce Myself ...". The entire chapter is worth the read.)

Nice unattributed paraphrase, Mr. Leavitt! I wish someone in the 'business' would do a serious comparison of the two books.

Having browsed the Internet for information about David Leavitt, I am not impressed by his credentials. There seems no thread to his writings that might motivate his taking up this Indian Clerk as a subject of fiction. Unless of course the book is really about Hardy, who (according to Alan Turing's biographer Andrew Hodges) impressed Turing as "just another English intellectual homosexual atheist" (Kanigel, p139). In my assessment of Mr. Leavitt based on one extended passage, I will take shelter, with Hardy's blessing, however awkwardly, under Lectio Dificilio Potior.

Ackroyd, si! Leavitt, no! I think I'll stick with Robert Kanigel. I recommend his book heartily as enduring literature.

1:08 AM  
Blogger Narayan said...

When I wrote a previous comment about my suspicions of David Leavitt borrowing material from Robert Kanigel's book about Ramanujan, I had no idea that he had been successfully sued for plagiarism by Stephen Spender. My hunch about the man may have some merit after all! The following links make for interesting reading.
Who Owns a Life? Asks a Poet, When His Is Turned Into Fiction (February 20, 1994)
Sir Stephen Spender sued David Leavitt for plagiarism, arguing that "While England Sleeps," Leavitt's novel about literary London in the 1930's, used substantial unattributed material from Spender's autobiography, "World Within World."
Did I Plagiarize His Life? By David Leavitt (April 3, 1994 )
In this article, Leavitt defends himself against Spender's charges.
My Life is Mine: It is Not David Leavitt's By Sir Stephen Spender (September 4, 1994)
Spender lays out his argument against Leavitt.

12:30 AM  
Blogger yasiru89 said...

Hardy's book on Ramanujan is perhaps the most romantic account of the man's life yet. That it was from someone who shared the man's passion for numbers can certainly be considered its striking point. However it is no mean saving grace for through the mathematics, Hardy in his lucid style unravels a curious life of an extraordinary man.

I am interested in reading Leavitt's book since it purports to offer a third person perspective which, while not unique, has never rightly been done in a way that incorporates these mens lives well enough.

For those interested in the mathematics, read my blog;

11:39 PM  

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