THE FICTION OF DAVID LEAVITT : The Lost Language of Cranes, The Indian Clerk, The Two Hotel Francforts – November 2015

Jane TompkinsReviewed by Jane Tompkins

Though I’ve read only four of David Leavitt’s eight novels, and none of his short stories, I want to report on the work of this writer, whom you may not know. I admire his versatility, his daring, and his skill and have greatly enjoyed three of the four novels I’ve read, each in a different way (the fourth, The Body of Jonah Boyd, was OK, but forgettable). His first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, published in 1986, is an earnest and endearing account of the pains of love—gay love, in the event—at a time when homosexuality was just beginning to be seen as a sexual preference rather than as a disease. Told from the point of view of a young man relatively comfortable with his sexual orientation, it follows the difficulties and pleasures not only of his own romantic adventures, but also, and principally, the experience of his father, Owen, who has been in the closet for the whole of his life. When I got to the scene in which husband and wife sit at the kitchen counter, silently eating cake and reading their respective books, I realized that I had read it when it was excerpted in The New Yorker almost thirty years ago. The feeling of the characters’ stultification and repressed misery was as strong as ever. The theme of the novel—that anything is better than the dishonesty of hiding who one really is—is expressed in the son’s determination to be known and accepted by his parents as a gay man, and by the father’s struggle to acknowledge, to himself and the world, his true identity. The father’s struggle, which forms the backbone of the plot, gives the novel a tragic dimension and dramatizes a period in the social history of sexuality in this country, a time when there was little in the way of fiction that gay people could recognize themselves in and learn from. The emotional honesty of The Lost Language of Cranes provides such a mirror.

The Two Hotel Francforts, published in 2013, could not be more different. Set in the 1940s, in Lisbon, then the only free port in Europe, its clever plot line—the plotting is almost too acrobatic—insouciant tone, rapid pace, and stylistic elegance set it off smartly from the earlier work. This novel is supremely entertaining. It involves two couples, each waiting for passage to the United States, and each staying at a different hotel, one at the Francfort Hotel, the other at the Hotel Francfort. The playfulness of the prose, which the author makes a point of bringing to our attention (e.g., “the lamps had pink shades, fringed and singed”), reflects the sense of gamesmanship that pervades everything. The characters are manipulative, devious, and exist at an emotional distance from one another; they keep secrets, act on impulse, and their lives take unexpected turns. One has very little idea of what the author thinks of their shenanigans; in the end, it seems, he gets rid of the characters he doesn’t particularly care for, and allows the ones he likes to turn out well. The novel’s main attraction, though, is a sexual affair between the two husbands, neither of whom has previously engaged in such a relationship, though each thinks the other has. Their sudden, torrid romance supplies all the suspense one needs, and most of the excitement; their trysts are brilliantly set off by the atmosphere of World War II Lisbon, where everyone who could has sought asylum from the Nazis. The intense sexual desire combined with a persuasively rendered historical milieu remind one of Casablanca.

But Leavitt’s crowning achievement is the novel that preceded it, The Indian Clerk (2007). Also a historical romance—set just before and during World War I, in England—it shows Leavitt at the height of his powers—expansive, imaginative, sophisticated, yearning, and not afraid to be ambitious. It has neither the flat-footed seriousness of the first novel, nor the slightly heartless virtuosity of the latest. The love in this novel, or perhaps I should say, the longing, unlike that in The Two Hotel Francforts, is unrequited. That is, the love that the narrator, G. H. Hardy, the brilliant and famous British mathematician, feels for the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan—perhaps even more brilliant and famous than Hardy, though he would have remained unknown had Hardy not taken the risk of bringing him to England—that love permeates the novel, and is replicated in the love that another character bears Ramanujan—Alice Neville, wife of the mathematician Eric Neville, who, together, convinced Ramanujan to make the journey and hosted him for a time after he arrived.

The atmosphere of unfulfilled desire extends beyond these figures into the author’s fascination for the time and place he is recreating, early twentieth century Cambridge: the food and conversation at the High Table, the collaborative habits of mathematicians, the silly rituals of the Apostle’s club—that famous gathering of mostly gay academic luminaries—dreamy walks along the Cam, cricket matches that go on all afternoon. Leavitt’s ability to recreate the events and settings of the time, and to project himself into the psyches of other major figures, such as Ramanujan’s shrewd, indomitable mother, and Hardy’s acerbic, spinster sister, is superb. Again love and history combine irresistibly in a story that pulled me into its orbit and kept me hungering for more; like Leavitt himself, and Hardy and Alice Neville, I was dying to know what made the Indian genius, the clerk of the novel’s title—Ramanujan held a low level position in the Indian bureaucracy—tick. But we never do find out. Ramanujan dies of an undiagnosed digestive disorder. He never gets back to India—the war prevents it—never sees his mother again, or his wife, whom he deeply regretted having to leave behind.

The reviews of David Leavitt’s work that I’ve read—in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Washington Post—though somewhat appreciative, are condescending in tone and finally almost dismissive, as if the reviewers couldn’t bring themselves to take the work seriously. The Indian Clerk is, in my view, a great novel. I hope that, along with Leavitt’s other novels, it will find the readership it deserves.~

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