MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Indian Clerk (2007)
David Leavitt
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Acclaimed author, Leavitt, presents a fictionalized version of one of the most famous "human interest stories" in mathematical history: the short life and career of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Focusing largely on G.H. Hardy and J.E. Littlewood, the book allows us to "be there" from the time that the two Cambridge mathematicians receive a letter from an unknown, self-trained Indian genius through to his untimely death. However, rather than focusing on the math, the vast majority of the book seems to be concerned with the relationships (sexual and otherwise) of the men of academia.

Famously, Hardy once said that his relationship with Ramanujan was "the one romantic incident" in his life. I must admit that I have found that a curious comment and wondered what it meant. (It is well known that Hardy was gay, but I was under the impression that his relationship with Ramanujan was strictly professional and would have expected him to have had at least some romantic relationships with other men!) Perhaps this novel helps to answer the question, though I do not actually know whether it is presenting an answer that could be well supported by historical records or whether it is simply the imaginary creation of the author.

I am a firm believer that for every work of fiction there are some readers who will thoroughly enjoy it and consider it to be a great work of art. You may well be one of those people who would love this book. However, for myself, as well as for many of the critics who have reviewed it, Leavitt's approach to telling this piece of history did not work. Some reviewers have complained that Hardy comes across as too "cold". Others have commented that Ramanujan's amazing insights into number theory do not seem sufficiently spectacular. Neither of these presented problems for me.

I guess I like a novel that presents something grand, with big ideas or deep thoughts. It does not have to be an epic; it can take some small event and put it in a context that makes it seem significant. In contrast this book seems to take something I might expect to be big and deep -- a famous story connected to some deep mathematics -- and instead turns it into something petty. Perhaps that too is a form of art, making us realize that even heroes have to clip their toenails, but I am not voyeuristic enough to care so much about these mundane and very personal aspects of the lives of these historical figures. On the other hand, if you wish to totally immerse yourself in such things as Littlewood's affair with a married woman, Hardy's crushes on the men around him, and Bertrand Russell's bad breath, then this is the book for you!

Actually, there do seem to be quite a few people who really did enjoy this book. Follow this link for a somewhat more flattering review by Heini Halberstam in the AMS Notices and check out these comments from Donal O'Shea (Elizabeth T. Kennan Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Faculty at Mt. Holyoke College):

Contributed by Don O'Shea

I only read "The Indian Clerk" because it was a gift and I found myself on a flight with nothing else to read. I'd long ago wearied of breathless Ramanujan stories and (in what I now recognize as unconscious class-hatred) had decided that Hardy was an insufferably over-entitled snob. More generally, I'd become wary of books which glorify the eccentricities of famous mathematicians and thereby often telegraph the message that mathematics is the preserve of maladroit misfits and beyond the ken of ordinary young people with ordinary hopes of having fulfilling human relationships, raising a family and making a living. Amazingly, Leavitt's book humanizes both Ramanujam and Hardy. It is also an extraordinarily good read. It does an excellent job evoking pre-WWI Cambridge, the pretensions of the Apostles, the sort of stunned naivete and incomprehension among many academics over the break out of the war, and the frightening closing of ranks and intolerance of dissent that prevailed in the wash of patriotic fervor once the war had begun. I checked a lot of the details, and they are historically accurate.

Contributed by Paul

I agree with [Alex's] main assessment, this book barely covers the astronomical insights achieved by Ramanujan, or his failures (such as his inability to solve the quintic through normal means), but prefers to focus on a group of free radicals who may (or may not) someday decide their sexual orientation.

Deeply disappointing in the scientific content, especially due to the number of pages. Sure, it's a novel, but gimme a break. Peruse through the book and look for notation. It appears in 5-10 pages only.

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

Did you know that Hardy wrote a murder mystery short story involving two mathematicians, one who killed the other over the Riemann Hypothesis? Unfortunately, Littlewood thought the killer was based on him, and objected to the story, so Hardy burned it. (I vaguely recall skimming this factoid in one of the recent spate of popularizations on RH.)

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Works Similar to The Indian Clerk
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  2. Ramanujan’s Miracles – A Drama To Demystify Mathematics by R.N. Kapur
  3. Partition by Ira Hauptman
  4. D'Alembert's Principle: A Novel in Three Panels by Andrew Crumey
  5. Prince of Mathematics: Carl Friedrich Gauss by Margaret B.W. Tent
  6. A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney
  7. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  8. Twenty-seven Uses for Imaginary Numbers by Buzz Mauro
  9. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
  10. Fractions by Buzz Mauro
Ratings for The Indian Clerk:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.4/5 (5 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3.2/5 (5 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Academia, Real Mathematicians, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)