The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt

leavitt2impaclgotemplate1One of the problems with pledging to make an attempt to read every book on a Prize shortlist is that you end up reading books you don’t like. And when you are a blogger, that also means that in addition to the unpleasant read there is the even worse task of writing a negative review. I did not like The Indian Clerk, but in its defence it did get nominated for the IMPAC Awards and the jury put it on the shortlist — so some readers have obviously found value in it. Please read this review carefully and critically; perhaps you can figure out if I went wrong.

I very much wanted to like this book because it plays to two of my rather odd biases.

The first is that it is about mathematics, of all things — focused on the real-life relationship between G.H. Hardy, the greatest British mathematician of his time (the Great War era), and Ramanujan, the untutored Indian clerk of the title whom Hardy brings from Madras to Cambridge and who to this day has a claim to genius. I’m not threatened by reading about mathematics (it is my B.A. minor, but I have forgotten everything I was taught about it post-high school) — indeed, I was intrigued at the challenge that Leavitt had set himself. Stephen Hawking says that an editor advised him when he was writing A Brief History of Time that every equation he included in the book would decrease sales by half (so Hawking held himself to one) — a quick internet check shows that The Indian Clerk would need potential sales in at least the billions, perhaps more, to produce a net sale of two copies if the advice Hawking got is correct.

In fact, the math is one of the least unsuccessful parts of the book. Hardy and Ramanujan are pure mathematicians who are mainly preoccupied with looking at centuries old paradoxes involving series of numbers (such as the Riemann hypothesis — look it up on Wikipedia if you are interested, I don’t want to halve the readership of this review already). Hardy’s evaluation of his work shows an acute self-understanding: a pure mathematician is someone who is obsessed with solving a centuries-old problem, the successful solution of which can be understood and will interest a grand total of 20 other people in the world.

Positive bias number two heading into The Indian Clerk is that I am a sucker for novels set in the grand British universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I presume because my own post secondary education was at the brand new, boring University of Calgary. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Javier Marias’ All Souls are just two examples of the genre that I love. So a historical novel, based on the real G.H. Hardy and featuring Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke and a host of other well-known names, in the environment of Cambridge, certainly had promise.

For the first quarter of the book, Leavitt delivered on that promise. The mathematics was interesting, the petty politics of brilliant men at Cambridge even more so. There were some grey clouds on the horizon — there was no real “plot” as such, the ending of the action had already been foretold and while the author had introduced the famous names (and the petty politics) I didn’t know much more about them than I did when I started the book.

Alas, the grey clouds turned into a most depressing storm, which in turn made the rest of the book boring sludge. I suspect if I had picked up the book at a bookstore rather than buying it online I would have spotted the problem there — any author of a historical novel who includes seven pages of “Sources and Acknowledgements” at the end of his book to summarize all the research that he did for it is providing warning enough. Would that Leavitt had not only done the research but also shown some discipline in deciding how much to include in the “novel” — at half the length, with the unnecessary repititive parts removed, this might have been quite a good book.

Although to do that, the author would also have to get rid of a lot of the sex (I hate to say it, but Leavitt makes Updike read like a lively sex writer). There is quite a bit of it, both the homosexual and heterosexual varities (given Cambridge at the time, the ratio is about four to one in favor of the former). The first few times it showed up, I would just grit my teeth and remind myself that it was probably necessary for context, as bad as the writing was. The problem was it keeps coming and coming and coming (sorry about the pun) and never does get interesting.

Leavitt also falls prey to a lazy literary device that becomes increasingly annoying every time he brings it back to the book. In the novel, it is the lecture G.H. Hardy “never gave” at a ceremony at Harvard in 1936 (20 years after the “action” of the book takes place) honoring the deceased Ramanujan. The sections tend to be long and serve only one purpose — introducing the stuff that the author thinks he needs which he can’t figure out how to put into the natural narrative of the book. Alas, the tactic also serves as one of the most damaging internal spoilers I can ever remember — just about every thread that might interest the reader gets destroyed before it is developed.

It is a tribute to the mathematics and Cambridge that I did finish the book, despite those annoyances. And I caution again — other readers did find value in this book, so maybe I am just being grumpy. I don’t think so, though.

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8 Responses to “The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt”

  1. Candy Schultz Says:

    For the most part I solve that by not writing a review – just mentioning that I didn’t like the book and a brief reason why. I hated The White Tiger.

  2. Rob Says:

    Sounds like a disappointing one, Kevin. Although I can kind of imagine the “speech never given” device working, if done in a certain way, I’m surprised the author allows spoilers to creep in there. Do you think the novel’s just underdeveloped, and some trimming (spoilers, unnecessary sex, too much info) and polishing (boring maths) would have helped, or does it have more fundamental trouble?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    To respond to both Candy and Rob, I thought the book had the potential to succeed (and obviously has with some readers or it would not be on the short list) and hence deserved not only the read, but also a review. My impression is that Leavitt got so entranced by what he was finding in his very extensive research, that he presumed his readers would be as well. And that would have worked if he was writing one of those 800 page academic books that was meant to be the final word on the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan. Unfortunately it does make the novel tedious. “Disappointing” is the right word, Rob — Leavitt’s choice of subject and even at points his execution had the possibility of making this a truly innovative and interesting book. For me, all it needed was a senstivite “director” of an editor, whom the author was willing to heed, and one more rewrite.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oh dear, not one for me then Kevin, I do struggle rather when an author can’t bear to leave some of their research off the page but must wedge all of it in.

    Your first paragraph is in a nutshell why I don’t do reading challenges or try to work through prizelists. I dislike writing up books I didn’t enjoy, usually I avoid it by being careful in what I read (though obviously my most recent writeup is negative and I wasn’t careful).

    Still, a good review Kevin, definitely not one from me though and although I did read your piece with a critical eye I couldn’t see any obvious flaws in your approach- unless buying on the basis of theme rather than execution is a flaw and if so it’s one we’ve all fallen into from time to time.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Knowing what you think about infodumps, Max, I’ll admit I did think of you (and how much you would loathe this book) often when I was reading it. In Leavitt’s defence, I will say that in the three weeks since I finished it the annoying parts have tended to recede in memory while the good parts (and there definitely are some) have moved forward. All of which underlines my original thought that there was quite a good book possible here, but this is not it.

  6. Eshuneutics Says:

    Stephen Hocking? Not the best start to a review: Stephen Hawking. Also, I’m not sure that advice given for non-fiction means much when transferred to fiction. You suggest that had the sex been reduced then the novel might have been reduced to half its length and thus become a more readable book. That’s hardly true: sex takes up only a small percentage of the book. And where it does occur it isn’t meant to be “interesting”. It rather reflects the nature of the novel’s characters and isn’t there to titillate the reader. A lot of your review is inaccurate from a critical point of view. Of course, you have the perfect right to your opinion.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ouch — thank you for the correction on spelling Stephen Hawking (and I have taken the liberty of correcting the review — thank you, again). It is a bad mistake and I will admit that I am one of those readers who was given a copy of his book and never did read it.

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that only the sex caused the book to drag for me and think if you read the review it doesn’t say that. While I think the book would have been improved with less of it, the politics of Cambridge and the imagined lecture could also have used a tighter edit. As you note, it is only an opinion and I certainly respect that other readers may well differ.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, all the way through.

    It’s tough going, and frankly it doesn’t reward the time spent. As popular science titles go, there’s much better out there. If Time weren’t so inaccessible I don’t think it would be nearly as good a seller.

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