In his latest novel, "The Indian Clerk," David Leavitt writes a fictionalized account of the unlikely partnership between G. H. Hardy, a prominent British mathematician, and Ramanujan, an all-but-anonymous Indian filing clerk he recognized as a mathematical genius. Together the pair attempted to prove the famous and unsolved Riemann hypothesis. Leavitt talks to NEWSWEEK's Charlene Dy from Gainesville, where he teaches at the University of Florida.
NEWSWEEK: You know, even though the book is titled "The Indian Clerk," we never get to know Ramanujan the way we know Hardy, so it's almost as if half of the book is missing!
David Leavitt: I wanted to portray Ramanujan as he was perceived by the English people in whose company he suddenly arrived. To them he was a very foreign figure. Not only was he Indian but he'd grown up in rural Tamil Nadu. He was a devout Brahmin. He had been very poorly educated. He was virtually an autodidact. He claimed that mathematical theories came to him through the agency of a goddess writing formulae on his tongue. From a narrative standpoint, I thought it was much more interesting to allow him to be the center around which other characters' lives revolved and whom they basically turned into whatever they needed him to be. So in a sense he was being used by a lot of these people.
And Hardy referred to this as the one great romantic incident of his life. A lot of times when I talked to people they said, "Oh, do you think they were lovers? Do you think Hardy was in love with Ramanujan?" And I said, "No, I absolutely-there's no suggestion that their relationship was in any way sexual. But there is certainly a suggestion that Ramanujan represented a certain kind of ideal that Hardy romanticized. And that's very odd, considering that Hardy was in some very strong sense kind of anti-romantic.
Hardy was gay, although you've said that his colleague, mathematician J. L. Littlewood, referred to him as a "non-practicing homosexual."
Littlewood was referring to that old phrase, "a practicing homosexual," which was a kind of catch phrase, particularly in the '50s and '60s. The joke was that in a court of law if a gay man had been arrested and was trying to be kind of witty, someone would say, "Are you a practicing homosexual?" and the reply would be, "No, I'm proficient at it."
How did you first find out about Hardy and Ramanujan?
Well, I was working on a book called "The Man Who Knew Too Much," which was a nonfiction book about Alan Turing, a great mathematician most famous for inventing the prototype of the modern computer. He apparently committed suicide in the 1950s after he had been arrested on charges of "committing acts of gross indecency" with another man.
So he was charged with being a homosexual?
Right, when that was still criminal. In lieu of a prison sentence, he underwent a course of therapy intended to cure him of his homosexuality that involved massive injections of estrogen, which was pretty terrible.
Did he have side effects?
Yes. Breasts. He'd always been very lean. He started to get quite fat. It was very humiliating, obviously. When he killed himself, he did so by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. And the myth is that that's what the Apple in Apple Computers is a reference to, but Apple Computers denies it. Anyway, I was researching him, and one of his interests was the Riemann hypothesis. And I thought, "Well, I guess I'd better learn more about the Riemann hypothesis so that I understand what I'm writing about." And it turned out that some of the other mathematicians who had worked on the Riemann hypothesis were Hardy and Ramanujan. I became absolutely fascinated by their relationship and their collaboration, and it dawned on me that there was a novel there.
Your portrayal of gay life in this movie was so—
It's not a movie yet.
Oh, sorry! Did I say the word movie?
There's a screenplay being written by Stephen Fry, so it may be a movie.
Who do you want to play Hardy?
Well, what I meant to say was that you've said that you wished the portrayal of gay people in literature was more mainstream.
You know, there was a point when it was very important politically, because there was so much denial of the very existence of homosexuality. In the '60s and '70s it was essential to say, "We're here. We're queer. Get used to it." Well, in the last 10 years people have gotten used to it. I mean, you just have to turn on the TV and you're going to see Rosie O'Donnell, you're going to see "Queer Eye," you're going to see "Will and Grace." In other words, the time has come now where we have to say, "Okay, we're here. We're queer. Get used to it. And now let's talk about something else."
Well, has that ever gotten you any criticism from the gay community? Because I think that for a lot of people the issue is still very political.
Oh, I absolutely agree with you. Look, I am totally out. I am a very outspoken gay man. I am perfectly willing to voice very loudly my support for gay marriage. From a political standpoint, I think these things are really, really important. But I think it's also important, particularly for writers, that we not be imprisoned within a limiting identity. It's really important to get beyond the point where you are a gay writer, and that's all you're allowed to be by the media, by the publishing world, even by your own peers.
When you came out with "Family Dancing" in the mid-'80s, you were hailed as one of the preeminent writers of your generation. Twenty years later, how do you think that played out?
I was really distrustful of it at the time. I remember a period when I was living in New York, and I seemed to constantly be invited to things. It was the so-called literary brat pack, you know, with Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. There was that brief moment when being a young writer in New York was very trendy. I didn't actually go to them very often. My sense was that that degree of attention almost always turns around and bites you.
You based a tiny bit of a past novel, "While England Sleeps," on the British poet Stephen Spender's life, and you were excoriated for it. Were you gun-shy with this novel, which again takes real characters and fictionalizes their stories?
In that case I think what Spender objected to is, he said, "You've taken my life and you've copied it and you've made it into pornography." It was about fictional characters. There was no character called Stephen Spender. This book is about real people. This is explicitly a novel about G. H. Hardy and Ramanujan. I haven't changed their names. I wasn't really gun-shy, but I did feel it was important to really document the sources.
Were you interested in math before you started this book?
I'm good at math, but I didn't have a great interest in it. I completely avoided it in college. And then when I was researching the Turing book, I started to get really interested in it. Because I think higher mathematics is actually fascinating. And I think part of the reason that most people are afraid of it is because it's generally very badly taught.
For Hardy, it seemed as if proving the Riemann hypothesis was going to be his artistic legacy.
I was actually at a party here at the university, and I was talking to the man who was at that point the dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences, who was a physicist. And I said I was writing this novel, I wanted to write a novel about Hardy and Ramanujan. And he really liked the idea, and he said-he was from New Zealand so he had a wonderful accent-"The thing about mathematicians is they're different from the rest of us. They're ah-tists, they're ah-tists."