Saturday, November 3, 2007

The beauty of the unpredictable (Books - David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk)



I have finished reading David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk. This entry along with this, this, and this constitute my thoughts about it. It displayed some interesting similarities to The Welsh Girl. Both have an outsider coming into a provincial world - the German soldier, Karsten, coming into the Welsh village and the Indian mathematician Ramanujan coming to the hallowed halls of Cambridge. In it, they meet locals who are outsiders themselves. War creates unusual circumstances which sharpens the lens through which we learn about them and through which they learn about each other. But The Welsh Girl inhabits a world of language and The Indian Clerk one of numbers. For both, these symbolic worlds (letters and numbers) are key players, superbly integrated into the landscape of the story, providing mean of both knowing and not knowing.

What I ended up finding satisfying about The Indian Clerk was the way Leavitt took his usual theme of alienation and told a story where the intellectual, the metaphysical, the historical, and the personal all meet. The Indian Clerk is finally not just an imagining of the actual events that took place when Ramanujan came to study with G. H. Hardy at Cambridge. It delves into the theme of isolation - for Hardy the ivory tower of academe, the privilege of holding a philosophy such as pacifism during World War I, and a world in which homosexuality existed in parallel with heterosexuality, but just beneath the visible surface. For Ramanujan it was being an Indian in England, a Hindu in a world of either Christianity or atheism, a vegetarian in a world of boiled meat and potatoes, a dark skinned man in a sea of whiteness. Prime numbers are important players in the mathematical side of the story. They could be seen to represent a mathematical sort of isolation - being divisible only by 1 and themselves and never following the rules quite as they're expected to.

I had imagined that the ghost of Hardy's lover, who pays him many visits during the story, and the theme of Hardy's rationalism being the reason he rejects religious faith, which is established quite early in the story during Hardy's youth, would come together and they do. What I enjoyed particularly was how mathematics was also woven into that metaphysical aspect of the story. The characters face, like all of us, death, shame, unattainable love, fear, doubt. Mathematics is discovered to be not just a tool of the hyper-rational but a way of expressing what cannot be known, is not rational, seems to adhere to a rule at one moment and then suddenly no longer does. Yet those things in our world that don't seem to follow a pattern are a part of our world all the same, and can be appreciated for their beauty if not for their predictability.

4 comments:

Matt said...

The musing of humanity, of life, through mathematics sounds very intriguing of a promise. We often find mathematics difficult to learn. Textbooks summarize hypotheses and proofs into mathematical formulas, but as learners of mathematics will soon realize, there is no actual pattern. So is life. One after another is a mathematical problem that awaits us in life. Predictability is not what life has to offer us, for if it does, then we won't perceive the real meaning of living. I'll have to read this book. Thanks for a great review.

Ted said...

Thanks Matt.
I guess there is a sort of dual reality going on for me. On one hand, I often feel like reality is about constant surprise and lack of predictability but on the other hand - this too presents a pattern of a sort. Isn't our struggle to compose a mathematical statement or a narrative to bring order and meaning to what we experience? I've always appreciated Mozart so much because his greatest music (I might offer the opera Cosi fan Tutte as an example) offers a complex interweaving of repeated themes but then, if you listen to them, they are really not repeated the same way twice - they are continually varied upon, both satisfying and defeating our expectations - depending on how you listen. In any event, I think you will find a lot to appreciate in this novel.

Matt said...

Very nicely put and apropos. I was thinking about variation of themes in different movement of a symphony when I wrote the previous comment. Relationships alone fit into this description. Relationships are all different and yet they seem to sustain a pattern in our life. We can only learn from past relationships but can never cope with a new relationship in the same way.

Ted said...

M - Yes, relationships do form patterns of a sort - or let us see patterns in ourselves. More fortunately, for me anyway, relationships break my patterns because I need to be responsive to someone else if I'm really being involved. I'm continually surprised by my relationship w/ my partner in that way, even after several years.