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[694] The Indian Clerk – David Leavitt


” Human situations, on the other hand, are complex and multiform. To understand them you must take into account not only misunderstandings, occasions, circumstances, but the mystery of human nature, which is as rife with contradictions as the foundational landscape of mathematics. ” (Part 9, p.447)

I am not sure exactly what “fictive biography” is why it matters, but The Indian Clerk, like many novels in the genre of historical fiction, employs real characters to construct a story that shines light on the immense gulf that divides us culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. The book is dextrously wrought and deviously researched. The Indian clerk in the title is Srinivasa Ramanujan, the celebrated mathematics genius who fetched up at Trinity College, Cambridge, six months before the start of the first world war. Although a fair amount of the narrative is written in the third person, the author’s proxy is Ramanujan’s sponsor, a leading figure in mathematics at the time, H.H. Hardy, who receives the original letter from the Madras shipping clerk and who, with his colleague Littlewood, makes arrangements for Ramanujan’s arrival. The self-taught maverick, rejected by his own society, is trying to prove Riemann hypothesis, a formula for calculating the number of prime numbers. But interspersed with the prodigy’s mathematical feat and life in Cambridge are great issues, focused and rooted in on the human front that makes this novel a gem.

God had nothing to do with it. Proof was what connected you to the truth. (Part 1, p.33)

The Indian Clerk is a study of differences, of oppositions, of human kindness. Hardy and Ramanujan are completely different people. One from west and the other east. Imperial homeland and infiltrating colony. God-disdaining atheist and a Hindu goddess-relying observer. Mathematics is what draws Ramanujan away from the social awkwardness conjoins him with Hardy. Despite his genius, he remains a studiously enigmatic presence in the book, uttering only conventional pleasantries and suffering repercussions of the intolerable situation at home, between his tyrant mother and recalcitrant wife by arranged marriage.

And so when the Hindu adheres to certain prohibitions and strictures for the sake of propriety and decorum, rather than because he accepts the doctrines of his religion as literally true, he is not acting as a hypocrite . . . (Part 4, p.202)

The interaction between Hardy and Ramanujan is on center stage, but the many peripheral characters give the book its social texture and periodical background. Many aspects of the book are very nuanced: the misanthropic, homosexual Hardy’s dealings with his bluetstocking sister Gertrude, his membership in the secret society of which many members are gay, the insularity that the math contest embodies, the don’s wife Alice Neville’s secret passion for Rmanujan, Littlewood’s affair with Ann Chase who would not divorce her husband, and Bertrand Russell’s loss of college fellowship for opposing the war, and a visit by D.H. Lawrence who offers grim opinion on marriage,

The fictionalized account is like a fairy tale in which a Westerner recognizes an undiscovered talent and seeks to unearth and display his luster. But at heart it’s revealing the unlikely but deep friendship of two men and their struggles, rooted in their upbringing and inveterate traditions.

485 pp. Bloomsbury. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[485] The Body of Jonah Boyd – David Leavitt

” The darkness settled. I thought about the first Thanksgiving I’d spent with the Wrights, the long night afterward during which I’d actually convinced myself that they’d invited me only to make me the subject of some strange social experiment. Now I understood that their motives for embracing me were not only more complex than I had suspected, but individual: Nancy needed me to be a failure, Ernest needed me as an alternative to Nancy . . . and now Daphne seemed to need me to be her confidante. ” (Ch.7, p.92)

Judith “Denny” Denham is not what she seems. Like most secretaries, she is overworked and underpaid, going through her career unthanked. Her physical appearance invites the assumption that she’s a sexless spinster. Who would have thought that she’s been having an affair with her boss, Dr. Ernest Wright, while maintaining a friendship with his wife. But the novel is not about the affair, and in fact much less with the professor, who is later murdered one afternoon in his office. It’s about how this curious link between literary creation and family procreation, all seen through the eyes of an outsider, the mistress, and told in acerbic tone.

The Body of Jonah Boyd revolves around the events on Thanksgiving Day in 1969 that have a crucial aftermath. Nancy Wright’s best friend Anne arrives with her new husband, Jonah Boyd, a novelist who is working on his latest novel. His notebook that contains his draft was passed along the dinner table and the novelist stuck up a friendship with the Wrights’ youngest son, a teenager aspired to be a poet, whose food phobia has been source of his mother distress. Showcased at the dinner is a glorious dysfunction that is not uncommon even in modern American family. The eldest son is absent; he fled to Canada to evade military draft. The boy-crazy daughter is preoccupied with the scheme to sneak out after dinner.

It was Ernest’s contention (which he shared only with me) that Ben suffered from an underdeveloped sense of reality. In Ernest’s view, Ben’s problem was that he lived half in a world of dreams, the border of which he could not clearly delineate; much of his bad temper and frustration, his father felt, owed to the refusal of the ‘real world (whatever that was) to conform to his wishes . . . I think it would be a mistake to understate to degree to which Nancy encouraged Ben in his delusions, if for no other reason than because they lent ballast to her own. (Ch.4, p.50)

When Boyd loses his manuscripts during the stay, the novel quickly sets into a series of twists. The slow revelation to what actually happened that day to the manuscripts takes on a mythic status that reverberates on Ben’s writing career. This novel is really about ben and all his eccentricities—and he is not a likable character to me. He is just too annoyingly weird. I’m not sure if the way Leavitt ties up the bundle at the end is ingenious as claimed by others. I just think the connection between Jonah Boyd and Ben who liked to write as a teenager is too obvious. Compared to his other works, this book is Leavitt’s lesser effort.Both plot and characters are thin.

215 pp. Bloomsbury. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[445] The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt

” It was horrible, really, what I was feeling, the sense I had that I was running a terrible risk every minute of my life—risking my family, my career—but not being able to help it; somehow just not being able to help it. I was thinking every day how I had to change my life, how I couldn’t go on this way; but I knew the more I thought that, the farther I was getting from where I thought I should have been. ” (350)

Philip is the romantic, modest type: all he’s ever wanted is someone to settle down with. When he falls in love with Eliot, a charming young man for whom love and efforts of affection always come easy. Philip can’t help feeling doubt and anxiety about their relationship. He wants to be constantly reassured that Eliot reciprocates the affection and, above all, fidelity. Philip also realizes it’s time to come out to his parents, who he believes have the right to know the truth. He wishes to tell them because it’s beyond being gay—that it’s the life he has and that they are part of his life.

Owen closed his eyes and mouth tight against screaming, and the scream burst inside him . . . He remembered Rose’s expression, the pain in her eyes, the way she held her hands together on her lap . . . He wanted to comfort her, to reassure her; but how could he, when he was the source and cause of all her pain? No matter how much empathy he felt, he was what was hurting her, and it could not be stopped, even by him. (267)

Meanwhile, Owen and Rose are experiencing life changes of their own. Though living together in harmony, their interaction is no more intimate than that of a passing acquaintance. Own spends his Sunday afternoons in gay porn theaters, hoping he can be purged of a week’s pent-up sexual tension and libido. But he only becomes swept his growing desire. He experiences both lustful longing for men and repulsion at his actions. And there is guilt: he has lied to his wife and built a marriage with her on the basis of a sexual lie. Those secretive feelings for men he harbors neither go away nor nor fade over time. How naive that he thinks his marriage to a woman would cure him of homosexuality. The secret is thus buried, but even from underground it has its influence. As Owen blames himself for being an absent father to his gay son, his wife reflects on the numerous occasions in which she chose to avert her eyes, to draw ridiculous conclusions just so she wouldn’t have to face the truth.

Now, of course, she understood it all. He wanted her to guide him to the kind of life he longed to have, a family life, with children. But how could she have known that then? Homosexuality was a peculiarity to her, a condition to be treated in hospitals—not a way of life to be embraced or saved from. (315)

The Lost Language of Cranes is a perceptive novel about sexual identity and family. It poses the question about the relationship between who one is and whom one loves. Does a love object, particularly an unconventional one, confer identity upon the person who loves it (or him, or her?) For Philip. the answer is obviously affirmative. His sexuality, his attraction to men, is the most elemental force in his life, and to deny it, to pretend it isn’t there because he’s afraid what people would think would be a tragedy. The life Philip desperately wants to avoid is fully embraced by his father, whose erotic attraction to men never becomes real since the attraction does not translate into a love for one man or for particular men. His coming to terms with his sexuality is especially intriguing, as he and his family must confront the latent homosexuality. The novel brings into a sharp focus individual’s struggle toward a sense of self in a world where feeling love is a certainty even if being loved is not. It’s a beautiful novel that requires readers to read between the lines.

353 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[262] While England Sleeps – David Leavitt

” Yes, Philippa had forced me to confront the foolishness of my delusions; yes, I now recognized it was Edward whom I loved. And still I was afraid of what it would cost me, what people might say about it, this improbable union between writer and ticket taker . . . worst of all, most frightening of all, two men. ” [179]

Set against the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, on the eve of World War II, While England Sleeps tells the story of a love affair between Brian Botsford, an upper-class writer and Edward Phelan, an employee of the London Underground who enlightens himself by perusing literature. Reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s works in tone and style, the novel also bears the ambition to address the state of England during the wobbly times. Class exploitation emerges as the underlying theme at the onset, spreading paranoia and confusion in Brian, who, although is better educated, is also too conscious of his improper, unorthodox relationship with Edward. Like almost any gay man, he consoles himself with the thought that he will outstrip his homosexuality.

Surely [Edward] would throw the rhythm off, make everyone uncomfortable. They would look down on him, which would pain me—and Edward as well. [102]

I know, I know, you were embarrassed because I’m the wrong class . . . You can’t help that you’ve got a bourgeois mentality. [116]

As social norms reiterate his fears, at the urging of his patronizing aunt, he cultivates a relationship with one Philippa Archibald—falling “in love” with her if for no other reason than because being in love with her is proving to have financial benefits. The consequence of this liaison on his relationship with Edward is so dire that is beyond emotional betrayal. He has lied to protect Edward, but he is deceived by his fear. His lies and delusions have eaten away at Edward’s sense of security, because he has denied him the comfort of the truth, even if the truth is ugly. The author’s intention in naming the title as is cannot be made any clearer. Brian Botsford is asleep to his emotions as pathetically as England is cowardly to confront Germany’s insidiousness. That Edward, a Communist by heart, has fled to Spain for the cause of fighting fascism, completes the link between private (personal) and public misery.

Instead I paced the floor, trying to convince myself, as I had a thousand times before, that it wasn’t my fault, that in fact Edward had gone to Spain of his own volition, and become ill by a fluke. Unfortunately this effort only exacerbated the anxiety it was intended to allay. [288]

In moving beyond mundane domestic drama that is not uncommon in GLBT fiction, Leavitt has created a historical novel with more substantial resonance. In exploring the turmoil of a forbidden love relationship, the novel transpires to a grander scale—concerning social wholeness and condemning (the absurdity of) class exploitation and homophobia.

304 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow] *The book created controversy as Stephen Spender accused Leavitt of plagiarism regarding While England Sleeps and his 1948 memoir World Within World.

Reading Notes: While England Sleeps

” Every day I listened to the wireless. The situation in Germany grew worse every day; every day, it seemed, Hitler made more advances, the noose tightened around the necks of the Jews. Meanwhile the European nations had signed a nonintervention treaty in regard to Spain, which the Germans and Russians appeared to be blatantly defying. Curse Eden! Curse England for her cowardice. ” [32]

Since The Night Watch by Sarah Waters a few years ago, I reunite with the crossover theme of historical (war) fiction with GLBT plot. This book sets against the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe and tells the story of a love affair between a upper-class young writer and a self-educated employee of the London Underground. Class exploitation and Communism would play out significantly in this novel. I am hoping While England Sleeps, in creating a greater resonance in association of a crucial moment in history, would break the curse of domestic drama and casual ennui that my two previous reads have impressed upon me.