Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? Some may remember him as the “father of the A-bomb,” a title earned when he directed the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project led to the creation of the atomic bomb. In Princeton some will think of the theoretical physicist who served as director of the Institute for Advanced Study from 1947 to 1966. Later he became to some a villain and to others a victim in the Cold War hunt for Communist sympathizers.
Numerous biographies have been written in attempt to answer that question. Now comes a piece of fiction aiming to do the same: A novel called “Trinity,” by Louisa Hall, a Harvard alumna and writer in residence at Montana State.
Hall will discuss her book Friday, April 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Institute for Advanced Study in a conversation with Pia de Jong, novelist (and columnist for U.S. 1 and the Princeton Echo), and wife of the current Institute director, Robbert Dijkgraaf. Register at www.ias.edu.
In a publicity statement Hall explains what led her to use fiction as a means of portraying Oppenheimer:
I wrote the book at a time when I was questioning my ability to accurately perceive the inner lives of people in my own life. How, then, could I believe that I had accurately imagined the interiority of a man I never knew, who lived and died before I was born? My only option, in such a state, was to turn inward: to try to know and represent myself in the clearest way I’m capable of, by imagining myself in the form of other characters.
Another part of that decision was the result of my aversion to a “great man” theory of history. The most appealing alternative to this approach, for me, has always been Tolstoy’s ideal historical science, as proposed in War and Peace: a history that gathers all the infinitesimal interactions that compose a single life—the impossible variety of emotional causes and effects, the myriad relationships, the minute interactions between people and the planet they inhabit—and integrates them into an unbroken continuum. Telling the story of a man’s role in history by breaking it into a few of its many parts was my attempt to move in the direction of that elusive ideal.
And lastly, I was experimenting with new ways of drawing a portrait. I often find biographies frustrating in the assumption that, by presenting a chronological series of events in a person’s life, something profound about that person’s identity might come across. It seems to me that identity is something more amorphous than that, an entity that doesn’t build in linear fashion but changes in every available context.
. . .
I was drawn to Oppenheimer first because of the bizarre nature of his security hearings, in which his friends and colleagues and family members were called to a secret room in Washington to testify on the question of whether or not Oppenheimer could be trusted in matters of national security. Over and over again, they were asked about his relationships with women, his friendships, the books he read, the activities he enjoyed, and whether and how well they really knew him. And over and over again, his friends and family members were forced to admit that they couldn’t be entirely certain they did.
In some ways, his trial became a question of how well we can ever understand the people we care for, or the people to whom we decide to give power.
Still, though I began the project imagining that I was writing about Robert Oppenheimer, I came to realize that in fact I was writing about myself and my own growing fears about how well I could understand the motivations of people in positions of power, both in my own life and in the world at large.
This novel — which takes the form of a long trial — is my attempt to gain solid ground in such a chaotic state.