Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Indian Clerk

Rarely do I get to interview authors who have no close connection to Georgia or the South. Cover to Cover focuses almost exclusively on authors writing in Georgia (I say “almost,” November’s guest is NOT from Georgia!), and occasionally I might interview an author not from Georgia, but writing about Georgia, for Georgia Gazette (GPB’s weekly newsmagazine, Fridays @ 3PM and Sundays @ 10AM).

Today, though, I got to interview a great author, the kind of non-Georgian author I absolutely have to make an exception for.

David Leavitt has been a favorite of mine since I don’t know when. I believe my first exposure to his work (after a fashion), was the 1991 made for TV British movie The Lost Language of Cranes which was based on the Leavitt novel of the same name.

When Leavitt published Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing I got to interview him for Georgia Gazette. I loved the book, which is the coming-of-age story of a young writer in New York in the 1980s who goes to work for a publishing house after graduating college, and searches for that elusive “sure thing” in both his own personal life and his professional life.

I loved Martin Bauman, partly because of the story (I was reminded of Allan Gurganus’s Plays Well with Others), but mainly because of the quality of Leavitt’s prose. He writes prose that is velvet; it is perfect and gives the impression of flowing from the author’s pen with complete ease. Martin Bauman was a pleasure to read, and David Leavitt was a pleasure to interview.

Not long after that, I came across a Leavitt book in the bargain books bin at the local branch of a nationwide bookseller. Arkansas is a collection of three novellas, the first of which, “The Term Paper Artist,” finds Leavitt again taking as his subject matter writers and the world of publishing. It’s a great work which the jacket describes thus:
In “The Term Paper Artist,” a writer named David Leavitt, hiding out at his father’s house in the aftermath of a publishing scandal, experiences literary rejuvenation when he agrees to write term papers for UCLA undergraduates in exchange for sex.
Arkansas did nothing to change my opinion of David Leavitt.

When in mid-August a review copy of Leavitt’s latest novel arrived on my desk I was beside myself with joy. His publicist followed up with an email asking if I was interested in interviewing Leavitt when he came to Atlanta on the book tour. My reply began (verbatim) “OMG yes!”

That interview was today.

His new novel is a tour de force. The Indian Clerk (I say it “clark,” the English way, but Leavitt says “clerk,” the American way…how cute!) is based on the historical story of the renowned English mathematician G.H. Hardy, perhaps the leading mathematician of his day. It’s the last years of the Edwardian era in Britain and World War I is looming.

Hardy is a don at Trinity College, Cambridge, the seat of British mathematics. He is an avowed atheist, a closeted homosexual, and a member of The Apostles, one of Cambridge’s most secret societies.

He receives a letter in the mail one day from Srinivasa Ramanujan, a clerk in the Accounting Department in the port of Madras, India. Ramanujan believes he has made significant contributions to the study of divergent series and wishes to engage Hardy’s help in getting his theorems published.

Hardy too works in this area of pure mathematics. Both he and Ramanujan are ultimately working toward proving the Holy Grail of this branch of the discipline, the Riemann hypothesis which provides a formula for determining the distribution of prime numbers. What makes Ramanujan special is that he is completely unschooled in mathematics beyond a high school level.

As Hardy works to bring the Indian clerk to Cambridge, Leavitt paints a phenomenal picture of a man (Hardy) who is at once both an iconoclast and a member of the Establishment, and a society dealing with huge changes.

The Indian Clerk is a work of incredible finesse, both of language and of research. Leavitt willingly admitted to me during today’s interview that he has never had any particular aptitude for or love of math, and yet he insinuates theorems and formulae into his prose as if he were Hardy himself.

The portrait Leavitt paints of England in the second decade of the 20th century is commendable. He writes of the privilege and eccentricity of the academic life in Cambridge with aplomb and creates vivid fictionalized versions of such historical figures as Lytton Strachey, D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, and G.E. Moore.

The Indian Clerk is a masterful piece of historical fiction (in the sense that it expertly captures a particular past time and a place), and also a thorough study of identity, whether personal, sexual, national or professional.

Once again, interviewing Leavitt was a pleasure. He is completely unassuming and yet not in the least diffident about his work. He teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and those are some lucky students.

He intimated that he is not currently working on a book; he’s taking a well-earned break. The Indian Clerk is his seventh novel and fourteenth book—he deserves a rest!

David Leavitt is one of this country’s finest novelists. His prose is immaculate, his imagination intriguing, and his storytelling compelling. The Indian Clerk is destined to one of this year’s best books. If it doesn’t achieve the loftiest accolades, I’ll sit down and prove the Riemann hypothesis myself!

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