Ray Monk

Oppenheimer: fact and fiction

‘Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible,’ Virginia Woolf once wrote. She was deploring the decision of her friend, Lytton Strachey, to combine fact and fiction in his book, Elizabeth and Essex, in which, in order to fill in the gaps in the historical record, Strachey used his imagination to invent details of the relationship between the Virgin Queen and her favourite earl. The result, according to Woolf, was neither an honest piece of biography, nor a satisfying work of fiction, but something that was caught in between the conflicting demands of the two genres.

Elizabeth and Essex was published as a work of non-fiction. America’s Children is published as a novel, and yet, being in essence a (not very) fictionalised biography of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, it occupies the same ambiguous territory as Strachey’s book and is subject to the conflicting demands that Virginia Woolf identified. It recalls very strongly (and is, I suspect, rather heavily indebted to) the 1968 book, Lawrence and Oppenheimer by the American professor of English literature, Nuel Pharr Davis, which, though written like a novel, was presented as a contribution to political and intellectual history. Like Davis, Thackara is more interested in personalities than in politics or physics, but, unlike Davis, he has a genuine sympathy for, perhaps even a reverential awe of, the troubled ‘father of the atom bomb’.

As many film-makers, dramatists, novelists and biographers have discovered before Thackara, Opppenheimer’s life does make a fascinating story, one which raises Faustian themes about the desire for knowledge and power and the hubris of our search for control of the world around us. A man who was rewarded for his epochal work on the bomb by being made the victim of a McCarthyite purge, who loved mankind but appeared contemptuous towards most of the people around him, who sought enlightenment from the great works of Eastern religion but was responsible for destroying two Japanese cities and killing about 100,000 Japanese people, and who took an active part in left-wing politics in the 1930s but ended up betraying several of his Communist party colleagues to the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Oppenheimer has all the contradictions and internal conflicts necessary for a fully-fledged tragic hero.

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