Saturday, October 27, 2007

In pursuit of genius (Books - The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt)

I continuing to enjoy David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk.

So Hardy paces the carefully tended pathways of Trinity College, while Littlewood, in London, goes to the tea shop in South Kensington (he did not mention this to Hardy) where, on those occasions when both of them happen to be in London, he and Mrs. Chase make it their habit to meet. Anne travels up to London only when she absolutely must. She is a creature of the seashore, not the town. As she sits across a teapot and a plate of scones from Littlewood, brushing back her dark brown hair, grains of sand fall onto the table. She is in London only at the behest of her husband. She has left the children behind, in the care of a nanny. Chase tolerates his wife's relationships with Littlewood so long as she agrees to make herself available when his career, his stature as an eminent Harley Street practitioner, requires him to go out in public with a wife on his arm. Tonight it's some sort of charity ball. "I hardly know what to wear," she tells Littlewood, as the sand grains fall from her sleeve, her hem. He can see twinklings of mica in the folds of her ears. He loves this about her, the grit of her that sometimes, on his way back from Treen to Cambridge, he feels on his tongue, in his teeth.

I appreciate how Leavitt builds character from tangible details seamlessly interwoven with context. The grains of sand - lovely, not only as a detail of her but of him - his loving them. Although he is a mathematician like Hardy, Littlewood's character contrasts with Hardy's more distant nature completely:

When a mathematician works - when, as I think of it, he "goes into" work - he enters a world that, for all its abstraction, seems far more real to him than the world in which he eats and talks and sleeps. He needs no body there. The body, with its blandishments, is an impediment.... This was the world in which Ramanujan and I were happiest - a world as remote from religion, war, literature, sex, even philosophy, as it was from that cold room in which, for so many mornings, I drilled for the tripos under Webb. Since then, I have heard of mathematicians imprisoned because they were dissenters or pacifists, and then relishing the rare solitude that a gaol gave them. For them, a gaol was a respite from the vagaries of having to feed themselves and dress themselves and earn money and spend it; a respite, even, from life, which, for any true mathematician, is not the thing, but the ting that interferes.

A slate and some chalk. That's all you need. Not pianos or thimbles or nails or saucepans. Not sledgehammers. Certainly not Bibles. A slate and some chalk, and that world -the real world - is yours.
It the section I'm reading now. The Nevilles - a colleague of the two mathematicians and his wife, who aspires to be an "adventuress," go to India to convince Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. She writes letters to Hardy's sister about their travels in an effort to make herself like the adventuresses whose diaries she has read (many of these were published and the stories of these self-sufficient women served as sources of inspiration for women who were struggling to emancipate themselves. Leavitt seems to enjoy assuming these two contrasting voices - that of the corseted mathematician and budding adventuress-diarist. I am enjoying them as well.

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