Each time David Leavitt publishes a new book I look eagerly for the joy I had when I read While England Sleeps, a few years ago. For many months the book rested on my bedside table and I would read excerpts every night before switching the lamp off. Happiness and quiet intimacy exuded from it, at least this is how I remember it some fifteen years later. The novel was inspired by the true love story between a young working-class Welshman, Jimmy Younger, and Stephen Spender in the 30's. After Spender sued the publisher, an out of court settlement led to stopping the printing in the US (where 30,000 hard-copies had already been distributed) and destroying the undistributed copies in the UK. While England Sleeps was republished in 1995 after major changes were made. Leavitt was traumatized by the experience. It is said that he never really recuperated and his works have not come back to their previous qualities. Sadly this seems to be true.
The Indian Clerk (Bloomsbury, 2007), his latest book, is well written, and thoroughly researched, but moves slowly, seems long. The bulk of the book relates the life of the famous British mathematician, G. H. Hardy, and his relationship with Ramanujan, a young Indian mathematician prodigy he attracted to England. It is set mainly in Cambridge during the years surrounding the Great War. The Sources and Acknowledgements pages at the end of the book review the different materials that Leavitt used. If I were really interested in Hardy's life I would certainly have been tempted by one of the books listed in these pages. But the truth is that I am not. I don't find he is a very likable character, even if Graham Greene highly recommends his small autobiography, A Mathematician's apology, published in 1940 and still available from Cambridge University Press. More than anything else, he appears as a sad lonely man, unable to love, and unable to question himself. Of notable interest, in the end pages on his sources, Leavitt writes that "it was from a sequence of novels - Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, all published by Plume) - that I got the most vivid sense of the ways in which homosexual love was expressed, exploited, and manipulated in England during the Great War."
Unfortunately, the fictional parts of the novel are a little bit lost in the almost 500 pages thick volume. They shine like small jewels, though. Young Thayer whom Hardy meets by chance in the hospital facilities built on the cricket grounds at Cambridge during the war, reminds young Edward Phelan from While England Sleeps. I enjoyed a lot the few pages where this fictional character appears, just to regret there were so few. Because of these pages, and because it is a rich, well constructed book, I still highly recommend The Indian Clerk.
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