David Leavitt is the author of several novels including The Lost Language of Cranes, three story collections and, most recently, The Body of Jonah Boyd. He lives in Gainesville and teaches at the University of Florida.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LEAVITT
David Leavitt graduated from Yale University in 1983 with a BA in English. He is the author of the short story collections Family Dancing (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award), A Place I’ve Never Been, Arkansas, and The Marble Quilt, as well as the novels The Lost Language of Cranes, Equal Affections, While England Sleeps (Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize),
The Page Turner, Martin Bauman, or A Sure Thing, and The Body of Jonah Boyd. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Institute of Catalan Letters in Barcelona Spain, Leavitt was recently named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library.
TEV: How did you first become aware of the story of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan, and what made it seem like there was a novel in that story?
DL: A few years ago Jim Atlas, publisher of Atlas Books, asked me to write a non-fiction book of Alan Turing and the invention of the computer for his series "Great Discoveries." In the course of researching Turing's life, I bumped up against the Riemann hypothesis, which is widely considered to be the most important unsolved problem in mathematics.
Like many mathematicians, Turing was fascinated by the Riemann hypothesis, and, at one point, even designed a machine intended to test the zeros on the critical line. To understand what I mean when I say "test the zeros on the critical line," you need to know a little about the Riemann hypothesis, which, at the time, I didn't.
Luckily four books explaining the hypothesis to lay readers happened to have been published the year that I was working on Turing. The first of these that I read was Marcus du Sauté’s superb The Music of the Primes, which included a chapter on Ramanujan and an account of his collaboration with G. H. Hardy, part of which touched on the Riemann hypothesis.
I admit that what first fascinated me about the story of Ramanujan's relationship with Hardy was the language that Hardy himself, years later, used to describe it. He called his "association" with Ramanujan "the one romantic incident in my life."
Knowing already that Hardy was perceived—at least by his other principal collaborator, J. E. Littlewood—as a "non-practicing homosexual," I decided to investigate the history of this odd "association" between a devout but poor Hindu Brahmin from rural Tamil Nadu and a fixture of Trinity College in the years just before and during the First World War.
In sharp contrast to Turing, who was socially awkward and a bit of a loner, Hardy—and this was unusual for a mathematician—traveled in sophisticated circles. He was one of the only scientists to be inducted into the Apostles, the elite and secret Cambridge society the other members of which, at the time, included Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also had close ties to Bloomsbury and literary London.
TEV: Your lengthy acknowledgements testify to a considerable research period. Can you talk about those efforts, about where in the writing they came – for example, was it primarily conducted up front, or did continuing research inform the actual writing process and even necessitate change?
DL: Early on I realized that if I tried to do all the research before I started writing, I'd never start writing. There was simply too much to learn. As Hardy himself might have put it, research can become an "infinite regress."
So I made what seems to me, in retrospect, to have been the audacious decision to write and research simultaneously. This was scary at first, in that it involved throwing prose down on the page when in many instances I didn't yet know what I was talking about or what I was describing. Later, as I got deeper into the book, both processes became easier.
Needless to say this approach involved a lot of backpedaling, as, time after time, the discovery of some new and irresistible nugget of historical information required me to revisit a chapter I thought I was done with. But this is not really all that different from the way that I usually write.
TEV: The book takes on everything from pre-WWI Cambridge to the Bloomsbury set to travels in India. How did you cope with the challenge of keeping all this material in balance and moving ahead? (I love the use of Hardy's "imagined" lecture as a framing device. How did that one come to you? Was it there from the beginning or did it come later?)
DL: For me, the most crucial decision in writing fiction is point of view. I knew from the start that I would not attempt Ramanujan's point of view. (Correction: I do enter his head—twice, I believe—in the novel.)
This was mostly because I didn't feel I had the right or the authority to make a guess as to whether Ramanujan was, as he himself claimed, religiously devout, or whether, as Hardy insisted, he went through the forms of religious piety in order not to offend his family.
Also, from a narrative standpoint, I wanted Ramanujan to exist for the reader much as he existed for the men and women he encountered upon his arrival in Cambridge: as an enigma, an emissary from a mysterious and alien world.
Hardy's standpoint seemed the natural one to take. At the same time, I was reluctant to write the novel from Hardy's point of view in first person because Hardy himself was a very fine writer
(Graham Greene, among others, praised his memoir, A Mathematician's Apology) and I didn't want to feel obligated to mimic his very distinct style. Lastly, I wanted to make it clear to the reader, from the start, that the voice telling the story was an American voice, a contemporary voice; in other words, my voice.
Third person present tense seemed the best route to take, especially as writing in present tense allowed me to invest the storytelling with a sense of immediacy that would work against the stultified, museum-is tone that is the great danger in writing about the past.
In other words, present tense would allow the reader to inhabit the world of the novel rather than regard it as an artifact of the past. Also, present tense fiction is a relatively new phenomenon. In Hardy's time, virtually no writers were writing fiction in the present tense.
So I dove in. And for the first fifty pages or so, everything went swimmingly, so far as point of view and tense were concerned. However, at some stage in the writing process I remember feeling frustrated by the limits I'd imposed on myself.
I wanted to enter into Hardy's head, if for no other reason than to give the reader a more intimate sense of his thought process. The lectures at Harvard—which he really did give—provided me with a perfect device for interlarding the third-person narrative with warmer and more informal first-person passages.
Balancing all the different elements: isn't that the trick in any novel? It's all about balance. I like to think of writing as a process of layering, akin to the layering that the great interior designer Nancy Lancaster perceived as the most crucial part of her art.
Keeping the different strands of a narrative balanced and in harmony is one of the only aspects of writing that seems to require an orderly brain. For me, therefore, it was a challenge.
TEV: The comparisons to While England Sleeps are probably inevitable so it's best to get the question out of the way – Were you at all concerned, given the controversy around that book, of taking on real characters and melding them with fiction? Is there a difference in the way The Indian Clerk handles the fictionalizing or real characters, other than the obvious convenience of dealing with people who are dead?
DL: While England Sleeps was far more remote from its source material than is The Indian Clerk. That is to say, I used the story of the relationship between Stephen Spender and Tony Hyndman as the basis for the story of Brian Botsford and Edward Phelan only in the loosest sense of the word "basis."
The Indian Clerk hews much more closely to fact than did the earlier novel. Curiously enough, it was the divergences between While England Sleeps and Spender's memoir, even more than the points of commonality, that caused the trouble.
TEV: The book is something a departure for you, in scope, setting and tone. In some ways, it almost seems like a work of the period it's concerned with – vast, with a large cast of characters, spanning years and continents. How difficult was it to "ramp up" for this book that's so different from working in more domestic milieus?
DL: Part of what drove me to undertake The Indian Clerk was, frankly, boredom with myself and the world(s) I have tended to write about. I wanted to get away from America, to get away from domesticity, to get away from families vaguely or explicitly reminiscent of my own, to get away from the tsarist of gay men in the late nineties. I also wanted to get away from writing about writers and the literary world.
Early on in the gestation process, when I hadn't even started writing the book, I ran into the then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences here at the University of Florida, a New Zealand-born physicist named Neil Sullivan.
When I mentioned to him that I was contemplating a novel about Ramanujan and Hardy, he leaned toward me and said, in his inimitable accent, "Mathematicians are different from other scientists. They're ah-tests." It was the realization—really, the revelation—that I could look at my protagonists as artists that provided me with the impetus I needed to write the novel.
TEV: And yet, for all the surface differences between The Indian Clerk and the rest of your oeuvre, it seems that the material still resonates with some of your Great Themes – identity, authenticity, and others? (It's probably something of a non-sequitur, but your depiction of Hardy's plight, his struggles with his homosexuality, put me in mind of A.E. Housman as portrayed in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love.)
DL: I suppose we cannot escape ourselves. The least autobiographical novels often end up revealing the most about their authors.
TEV: How did you find working with so many points of view, and what challenges did that present?
DL: Point of view is my obsession. I love the intimacy of first person, and I also love the scope and latitude of third person. (About second person I'm more ambivalent.) In The Indian Clerk it was great fun to be able to move freely among a variety of points of view.
The idea was to suggest Ramanujan's complexity and also his elusiveness, by giving the reader a wide range of responses to his uncanny arrival in Cambridge. The various characters from whose points of view the story is told—Hardy, Littlewood, Alice Neville—try to make Ramanujan into what they need him to be. They also try to grasp hold of him. What's interesting is that he continually escapes their efforts at embrace.
TEV: I think you handled the inclusion of complex mathematics with elegance, clarity and restraint but I'm also personally interested in high-level mathematics. Were you at all concerned about how the presence of complicated math in the narrative might affect your readers?
DL: Mostly I was concerned about making mistakes. The Man Who Knew Too Much, my book on Turing, was littered with small errors, most of which I corrected for the paperback edition. In order to make The Indian Clerk as clean as possible I asked a mathematician, Prabhakar Raged.
Manila Suri, a fine novelist (The Death of Vishnu) who also happens to be a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, also read the manuscript. They both found mistakes that I was relieved to be able to correct before the book went to press.
My feeling is that higher mathematics is actually easier for ordinary people like me to understand than our educations have led to believe. The trouble is that mathematicians speak, among themselves, a private language. Once the story of mathematics is translated into a language that non-specialists can grasp, we're able to enter into the story—which is incredibly compelling .
Marcus du Sauté, Paul Hoffman, Martin Davis, Simon Singh and other recent writers on mathematical subjects have shown us that one need only employ the writer's usual arsenal of tools—metaphor, allusion, analogy—in order to make mathematics meaningful to the non-mathematician in much the same way that music can be meaningful to the non-musician.
A curious fact that I encountered in researching this book: most mathematicians despise computation as much as most of us did when we were in high school. There's a famous story about a group of extremely eminent mathematicians at a conference who decide to eat together at a Chinese restaurant. When the bill comes, they can't manage, for all their struggling, to divide it up.
TEV: Having just finished my own revisions, I'm intensely interested in tales of revising, and The Indian Clerk is such a complex tapestry that I can't imagine what must have been involved in the revision process. Can you talk a little to that side of things? (I know from our earlier discussions that one of my favorite passages in the book – the image of the German housekeeper, which singled out in yesterday's post – came in revisions.)
DL: I am a ceaseless, obsessive reviser. I keep revising until the last possible minute. And I save every draft. The passage about the German housekeeper I rewrote about fourteen times before deciding—in page proofs—to go back to the first version. Generally speaking, I hate starting things. Writing a passage for the first time, I shrink from the ugly disorder of what lands on the page.
I'm not one of those writers from whose pens prose flows effortlessly, and who rarely change a word. Instead I hurl something down, print it out, look at it, wince, try to clean it up, print it out again, look at it, see a vague possibility of something decent, work on it some more, print it out again, smile in pleasure, take a break to have a coffee, come back, read it again, cry out in horror that I could think something so hideous was any good, work on it some more, print it out yet again…and so on, until…well, until it's as good as I think I can get it.
And even then I'm usually not satisfied. Often I'll pick up one of my earlier books, open it to a page at random, and start rewriting what I'm reading in my head. It's an endless process and it's an essential process.
Again, what one is doing, whether one knows it or not, is layering: first you paint the walls, then you put up the curtains, then you lay the carpet, then you arrange the furniture, then you put up the paintings…and lo and behold, you have a room
TEV: You've singled out Pat Barker in your acknowledgements as an influence, specifically her wonderful WWI trilogy – Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road – which I think are absolute masterpieces. Can you talk a little bit about how they informed The Indian Clerk?
DL: In these novels Barker does an amazing job of bringing the reader into the panicked landscape of England during the Great War. She manages to weave into her narrative a host of complexities that have tended to leave historians stumped, including the culture of homosexuality that took hold during the war, despite official efforts to vilify homosexuals as spies and traitors. At the same time, she tells an incredibly involving story. I also appreciate the ease with which she brings invented characters together with real people.
TEV: You head up the creative writing program at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Tell us about Subtropics.
DL: Subtropics is the literary magazine that we launched last year out of the Creative Writing program here. Our mandate is, first, to publish writing that we love; second, to provide a home for work that might be difficult to place elsewhere: long stories, extremely short stories, translations, works of great merit from the past that have lapsed out of print.
So far so good. From the first issue alone we had stories taken both for the O. Henry anthology and Best American Short Stories, as well as poems in two different volumes of Best American Poetry. And we got some nice comments on blogs, including one from Moorish Girl. Now that I find myself on the brink of bringing out the fourth issue of Subtropics, I realize that what pleases me most about the magazine is its eclecticism.
I challenge anyone to find an ideological bias in the choice of prose or poetry. (Our poetry editor is the estimable Sidney Wade, whose new collection, Stroke, is due out this fall from Persia Books.) We have published the very famous (John Barth, Allan Gargano’s, Billy Collins, Anne Carson, even Harold Bloom) alongside the unknown, the barely known, and the forgotten.
The magazine strives to be fun, but it is intended to be a magazine for readers, eschewing, for better or worse, the graphic excesses that characterizes many new magazines in favor of old-fashioned black prose on white pages.
If we had a model in mind when we started Subtropics, it was Grand Street back in the days when Ben Sonnenberg edited it. Indeed, it was a conscious decision to open the first issue with a pair of short lyrics by Sonnenberg. Ironically there is a typo in the title of the second of these. No doubt some demiurge was having fun with us.
TEV: And maybe you can settle the age-old debate. MFAs – good, bad, indifferent?
DL: It all depends on how they're taught. Look for an upcoming essay on the subject in The New York Times Book Review.
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