Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations

The context is David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk and the great mathematician G. H. Hardy’s hatred for the “tripos,” a now-defunct series of math tests at Cambridge that served as a sort of hazing ritual something like modern-day dissertations (Hardy despises them for “The tedium. The sense of energy diverted, imagination stifled”). To pass, many candidates received encouragement and expert tutoring. In this exchange a character named Gaye speaks first, after learning that Hardy, despite his feelings about the Tripos as an institution, will tutor someone about to undergo them:

“Coaching an undergraduate for the tripos. The tripos, of all things! And after all the screeds I’ve heard you deliver against the damned—”
“He won’t make it otherwise,” [Hardy said.]
“Is it your job to save him?”
“Someone saved me.”
“But Love didn’t coach you. He just sent you back to Webb. [. . .] Yours is a more specialized erotic thrill, that of rescuing the fair damsel from the jaws of the dragon.”

There is a perpetual tension discussed here: how much, if any, obligation do we have to others and do they have to us? The question can never be satisfactorily resolved, only explored, and for that reason it is likely to be of interest to novelists (or anyone creating narrative art). Gaye and Hardy are both in their own ways right. Two or more people or viewpoints who both have reasonable claims to rightness is a fertile place for intelligent drama.

One joy of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the conflict between Marina and Dr. Swenson: when one speaks I agree with her; when the other speaks I agree with her. It’s not easy to sustain this level of conflict without giving one character the upper-hand, the right answer. Novels that do so often descend to the level of propaganda rather than art.

To return to Hardy and Gaye: Relatively few of us go through life completely, callously indifferent to the suffering and travails of others but equally so very few of us devote everything we can to “saving” others (for one thing, they often don’t want to be saved, and can’t be saved from themselves). Somewhere between those poles of total indifference and utter devotion we wander erratically, with no consistent reason, helping some—even making it our “job”—and ignoring others.

Often, however, in helping others we are also helping ourselves in some sense. Hence Gaye’s reference to the erotic thrill: it’s easier to innocently “help” someone attractive, or who is likely to be in a position to pay back a favor, but very easy to deny mixed motivations—until someone else, or some other character, points them out.

The Indian Clerk

In college literature courses I heard and disagreed with endless refrains about the supposed division between the sciences and humanities, while in computer science I heard endless jokes about liberal arts majors’ only job skill being the question, “Would you like fries with that?” I opposed both smug camps, and David Leavitt’s excellent The Indian Clerk is there with me, making art and science equal part of the intellect. The Indian Clerk follows the great self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s time at Cambridge before and during World War I. His curious journey came thanks to G H Hardy, who helped bring him from India to Britain, and over several years the two worked together in numerous areas of math that went over my head when I tried to research them. Leavitt, however, builds a cohesive novel on this unusual partnership.

The novel covers Ramanujan’s stay in England without going much into the hidden genesis of his talent in India. We get the interior life of Hardy; The Indian Clerk is told chiefly from Hardy’s view, and concerns Hardy as much as his nominal subject, who is to me as enigmatic at the end of the novel as the start. In part this is because Hardy is neither interpersonally nor emotionally perspicacious, English/Indian cultural barriers are never fully surmounted, and, in a clever twist on unlike people forced together, mathematician culture emphasizes the quality and quantity of work above other considerations. As told through the fictional Hardy, the culture of mathematicians encourages the necessary but, it is implied, false belief that social culture matters not at all. The epigraph acknowledges the issue: “Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immorality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.” But the story of Ramanujan and Hardy fascinates enough to drive a wonderful novel more for the unprecedented circumstances surrounding their collaboration than for purely technical achievements. To be sure, the former cannot exist without the latter, but it is the latter that most inspires.

Explaining technical and other issues is part of what Hardy, like any scientist or mathematician, must do. Much of the novel concerns the difficulty of relationships and expression, and statements like this early one are common: “Hardy tried to put his position in a language O.B. would understand.” Or, a few pages later, “For [Hardy], goodness was indefinable, yet also fundamental, the only soil in which a theory of ethics could take root. And where did goodness lie? In love and beauty.” Math is what he most often perceives as beautiful, as when he says, “I cannot tell you what pleasure I continue to take, even today, in the beauty of this proof; in the brief yet extraordinary journey it represents, from a seemingly reasonable proposition (that there is a greatest prime) to the inevitable yet utterly unexpected conclusion that the proposition is false.” These passages also demonstrate the myriad of math metaphors explaining the ideas of the characters; it’s a worthy method too infrequently used in novels, and Cryptonomicon’s similar usage made it far more successful.

Still, math is only an aid to understanding the world and not understanding itself. The racism of Hardy’s colleagues against Ramanujan reminds us of prejudices among those in technical fields. It’s facile but true to lament that more people aren’t judged by ability or knowledge rather than appearance, but while I couldn’t help perceiving that idea, Leavitt is far too deft a writer to make banal if true statements in the fashion of Harper Lee. Hardy attacks the discrimination problem like a technical one, and successfully, even when similar approaches fail in other domains. Being a homosexual, Hardy faces problems like Ramanjuan’s, as homosexuals long have in Western society. This makes another parallel is laid between him and Ramanujan. Hardy’s outsider status, both in terms of financial upbringing and sexuality, helps explain his willingness to overlook Ramanujan’s native country and at his math.

The puzzle comes together from multiple sources: Hardy as a younger man, Hardy as an old man, and occasionally from minor characters. This structure suits a novel with historical figures and uncertainty; anyone who wishes to know the end of Hardy or Ramanujan can easily do so just by typing either’s name in a search engine. Leavitt uses a dual structure, with a present-tense timeline beginning in 1913 and a later, past-tense timeline in which Hardy is giving a mostly imaginary lecture at Harvard in 1936. Thus, he incorporates both the rush of events happening as well as the melancholy of things remembered. The things remembered include Britain before the devastation from World War I and Ramanujan before the mystery illness that took his life. The hints of what will happen never go beyond foreshadowing, giving the narrative fresh urgency instead of muted elegy.

The Indian Clerk has tremendous depth that I’ve only accounted for in small part because it is bigger than many critically esteemed works, and I suspect that many critics will try in vain to plumb its depths for a long time to come. Whole sections involving important characters have been left out. The Indian Clerk provides much pleasure and imparts much wisdom, even if too many subplots in the latter half sometimes flatten the effects. But I do not hesitate to call it the best novel published this year, and it is the kind of book that should narrow the artificial, academic rift between science and art. Commentary on both subjects and many others fill it without impeding the action, and one of the larger subjects is uncertainty, as at the end of part three when Hardy says, “One wonders what would have happened had the war not broken out. many wonder this, for all sorts of reasons. There is of course no answer.” It must be a painful thing for a mathematician to exist, especially in an era before or near the time of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorum. Just as it appears that mathematical discoveries will go on forever, so too will attempts to understand great art, of which math is a subset. The Indian Clerk concerns itself with the inability to know what others think and what causes history’s lunatic journey, and that uncertainty, about racism, about the relationship of abstract math to life, about life itself, will keep me interested in The Indian Clerk for a long time.

To learn more see Leavitt’s extensive blogging at The Elegant Variation.

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