Notebook: November 6, 1996

  • New Buildings in the Works

  • Scribner Exhibit at Firestone

  • Class Act: Exploring the Human Condition in Great Works
    (Romance Languages and Literature Professor Victor Brombert)

  • Nobel in Chemistry to Richard Smalley *74

    The look of campus is changing as the university embarks on several construction projects. The first one to be finished will be an addition to the Woolworth music building, a music library, which will be completed next summer, according to Jon D. Hlafter '61 *63, director of physical planning. By early October, the steel had been erected, and planners hope to have the building enclosed by winter. The addition will consolidate the music department, housed in Woolworth, and the music library, now in Firestone Library.
    Another project in the works on paper, though not on the ground, is a new dormitory located where Poe Court-the temporary housing erected last year on the field between 1922 Hall and Lewis Thomas Laboratory-used to be. The temporary housing was removed before the Class of 2000 arrived on campus in September. The university expects to begin construction on the new 260-bed dorm next spring or summer, said Hlafter, and complete it by the fall of 1998. One section of the building will likely be four stories and the rest of it will be three, said Hlafter. The dorm will have single bedrooms, with some grouped in suites and others sharing semiprivate bathrooms, he added. On each floor will be lounges, laundry facilities, and kitchens. The dorm, which will be designed by the Boston architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti, will form a courtyard with Butler College to the west.
    The new dorm will allow the university to renovate space for 150 beds in older dorms each year, said Hlafter. And it will also allow the university to convert 120 bed spaces in the current dorm system to common space such as bathrooms, kitchenettes, and laundry facilities. The first dorm to be renovated after the new one is constructed will be Patton Hall.
    Construction on the addition to Jadwin Hall-the new physics and mathematics teaching facility, McDonnell Hall-has progressed this fall. In early October workers were excavating between Jadwin and Fine halls, which house the physics and mathematics departments, respectively. McDonnell Hall will house five classrooms, six teaching labs, and two lecture halls. With the completion of the addition, introductory physics and mathematics courses, now taught in Palmer Hall, will be integrated with the rest of their departments. Designed by Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, of New York City, McDonnell Hall will be completed during the 1997-98 academic year, said Hlafter, but the physics department may not use if for teaching until the following year.
    Caldwell Field House is also due for some sprucing up. It will be renovated to allow for the expansion of locker facilities. The university expects to begin construction next spring and complete it by the summer of 1998, said Hlafter.

    Charles Scribner 1840, the founder of the publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons, and his legacy are featured in an exhibit titled "The Company of Writers: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1846-1996" in Firestone Library. The publisher's four presidents, all named Charles Scribner, were graduates of Princeton (1840, 1875, 1913, 1943). The fifth Charles Scribner, of the Class of 1973, worked for the company under his father, a member of the Class of 1943, until it was sold in 1984 to Macmillan. Scribner is now an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Featured in the exhibit is artwork by Scribner artists Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, and others; oil portraits of the heads of the firm; first issues of all the Scribner magazines, including Hours at Home (1865) and Scribner's Monthly (1870); and bookcases containing works of the best-known Scribner authors of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1967 Scribners began to keep their archives at the university, which provided much of the exhibition material, said John M. Delaney, curator of the exhibit. Originally called Baker & Scribner, Charles Scribner's Sons published the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald '17, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and others. It was also the home for 37 years of the best-known editor in American literary history, Maxwell Perkins. The exhibit runs through January 12.

    Richard E. Smalley *74, a professor of chemistry and of physics at Rice University, Robert F. Curl, Jr., also of Rice, and Sir Harold W. Kroto, of the University of Sussex, in England, won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their 1985 discovery of a previously unknown class of carbon molecule, in which 60 carbon atoms are linked in the form of a soccer ball. New forms of the element carbon were dubbed "buckyballs" or "fullerenes" because their geodesic molecular structures are reminiscent of the domes designed by the American architect R. Buckminster Fuller. The three scientists and two Rice graduate students formed the fullerenes by directing intense laser light at carbon atoms, then mixing them with a stream of helium and separating the carbon clusters that formed as the mixture cooled. As a result of their discovery, an entirely new branch of chemistry has developed.

    Victor Henri Brombert uses the verbs "to teach" and "to perform" interchangeably. Each fall he attracts 300 to 400 students to Literature 141, his course on European writers. Before every twice-weekly lecture, he gets stage fright. But once into his performance on Kafka's The Judgment or Camus's The Fall, he relaxes and becomes immersed in the subject, the words, and the current that flows between him and his students. He doesn't read his lectures, but uses only notes to guide him. This, he says, keeps him from droning on. It also allows him to observe students' faces and see their reactions. "The classroom, the hour, the analysis of the text can be something special and have their own aesthetic beauty," he says.
    For the last 10 years, Brombert, a professor of romance languages and literatures and comparative literature, has taught Modern European Writers, primarily to first-year students. In course evaluations, students have called his lectures moving and insightful, and deemed Brombert one of the best lecturers at Princeton.
    This fall he's covering Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Kafka, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani, and Max Frisch. In developing the course's reading list, Brombert selects only "books that I can love, that I can play." Proficient in French, English, Russian, German, and Italian, he also reads each book in its original language. Each year he changes at least one writer for variety. Brombert leads his students to examine moral issues in these works, especially the survival of culture, civilization, and values. Most of the stories involve the characters' confrontations with mortality or hell: Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, Mann's Death in Venice, Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. Although the texts deal with serious issues, he doesn't believe they are always depressing because they reaffirm a faith in life or a human ability to cope.
    In the first class of the current semester, he probed The Death of Ivan Ilych-its themes of death, truth, values, and judgment. In discussing the suffering and death Ivan faces, Brombert compared Ivan Ilych to the work of other writers: an essay by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal's Pensées, and the Book of Job. At the end of the lecture, Brombert suggested to the students that perhaps the story is not really about Ivan's death but about his life. The questions to ask, he said, might be, What's wrong with his life? and What can we learn about how to live?
    During the semester, students write four critical essays, in which Brombert hopes they discover their own voices. As important as teaching students how to write well is teaching them how to read critically and ask good questions about the text, he says. The meanings of a book are rooted in words and clash with each other, explains Brombert. And the text's images, metaphors, and figures of speech clash with grammar. Literature, he concludes, is about tension.
    Some students are frustrated by the elusive nature of literature, says Brombert. They want to know what the text "really" means. What's extraordinary about literature, he says, is that "you cannot say that you have ingested the text, and now it's finished." One must come back to it, and each time it will be different.
    In his own research and writing, the books Brombert comes back to time and again are those by Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, and other 19th-century French novelists. He's also written about 20th-century authors, including Camus and Sartre, and explored literary elements such as the prison and the intellectual hero.
    Brombert came to Princeton in 1975 via Paris, where he was raised, and Yale, where he taught for 24 years. He and his family escaped German-occupied France in 1941, arriving in the United States in time for Pearl Harbor. He joined the U.S. Army and returned to France, landing on Omaha Beach. When he returned to the U.S. in 1945, he enrolled at Yale, where he realized he would become a scholar and teacher, although he did hesitate for a short time while considering a career in opera.
    At Princeton, he directed the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism from 1983 to 1994 and was the head of the Council of the Humanities from 1989 to 1994. Brombert, 72, has given up administrative responsibilities. He could retire from teaching and focus on writing and traveling but would miss educating students. Conveying the subtleties of literature to nonspecialists invigorates him. Comparing the challenge of teaching freshmen to performing music, he says: "You don't want to just write and perform for other performers. . . . You want to share your love. That's what literature's all about."
    -Kathryn F. Greenwood

    A reading list by Victor Brombert
    The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy (Signet Classic, 1994)-The Russian novelist's realistic and gripping denunciation of the emptiness, selfdeceptions, and false values by which we tend to live.

    Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann (Vintage Books, 1989)-A novella about an artist's fall, pointing to a general cultural malaise and threat of decadence.

    The Complete Stories, by Franz Kafka (Shocken Books, 1971)-"The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis," and "In the Penal Colony" are powerful fantasies of anguish, guilt, and alienation as well as parables of modern consciousness.

    The Waste Land and Other Poems, by T. S. Eliot (A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1979)-Eliot's poems of discontinuity and fragmentation imply a call for retrieval of values and spiritual reawakening.

    To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1981)-An elegiac novel dealing with loss, memory, and time in bold experimental ways, raising fundamental issues of human relations.

    The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani (Harvest/HBJ Book, 1983)-A moving love story set in Ferrara, Italy, on the eve of World War II, with social and political implications.

    The Fall, by Albert Camus (Vintage, 1991)-A brilliant, ironic critique of the misuses of "humanism" by a profoundly humanistic writer.

    Homo Faber, by Max Frisch (Harvest/HBJ Book, 1987)-A novel about selfdeception and ultimate lucidity, in which the tragic experience leads to a reaffirmation of a love for life.

    Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi (Collier Books, 1993)-A haunting account of the experience of the death camp which underlines the importance of "witnessing," hence of communication and the survival of human values.