|David Leavitt builds his novel around several famous writers and scholars. (tanya tribble)|
A tale of creative minds and complex relationships
Winnie the Pooh and D. H. Lawrence make cameo appearances in David Leavitt's new novel, "The Indian Clerk." So do Rupert Brooke, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
But the fascinating figure at the novel's center is Srinivasa Ramanujan, the barely educated Indian clerk who wrote a 10-page letter about numbers to the eminent historian G. H. Hardy at Cambridge University, impressed Hardy enough to invite him to England, and became one of the century's greatest mathematicians. As Hardy, Leavitt's narrator and main character, muses toward the end of the story, "Ramanujan had come into their world, and for a time their lives had revolved around him, much as distant planets revolve around a star."
Many of the above-named celebrities make their appearances at the Cambridge Apostles club, a kind of British Mensa. The club provides brilliant ideas, tawdry jokes, and gossip. Through what he learns there, Hardy relates the stories of many couples of various sexual orientations. The pairings abound.
Hardy's friend and mathematical collaborator, Littlewood, conducts an ill-fated romance with a married woman. They appear to be the love of each other's life, but when she becomes pregnant with his child, the relationship fizzles, leaving Littlewood miserable.
Hardy himself is gay. He has an affair with a soldier, and he cares for the man, but the real love of Hardy's life has died long ago.
All these planet-people revolving around Ramanujan enable Leavitt to study the nature of love and creativity. He shows us Hardy, Ramanujan, and Littlewood doing math, and infuses their efforts with drama. He also demonstrates that the creative processes of mathematicians are not so different from those of writers.
As for love, consider Hardy's visit with D. H. Lawrence. Not knowing that Hardy is gay, Lawrence makes some crudely homophobic remarks. But then he offers some wisdom: "Love is this: you go to a woman to know yourself, and, knowing yourself, to explore the unknown, which is the woman. You venture upon the coasts of the unknown. . . . But what nearly all English people do is, a man goes to a woman, and he's merely repeating a known reaction, not seeking a new reaction. And this is simply self-abuse."
Leavitt makes the math of prime numbers surprisingly palatable. But we learn more about the complexities of love and work, and their interaction. In Hardy, Leavitt has created a rich character for the reader to care about.
As for Pooh, Hardy tells us that Ramanujan loves to visit a panda named Winnie at the London Zoo. Pooh's creator A. A. Milne, Hardy says, also loved Winnie, enough to borrow the panda's name.
Merrill Kaitz lives in Beverly and is author of "The Great Boston Trivia & Fact Book."