a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|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):
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)