Universities are cyclical in nature. Each fall, new undergraduates matriculate, and four years later, they graduate. As I look ahead toward my own graduation, I find myself reflecting on the brevity of my Princeton experience in comparison to the University’s 277-year history. By May, I will have overlapped on campus with only seven class years of students, and I will have been taught only by the professors and scholars Princeton employs right now.
However, my undergraduate experience has been punctuated by memorable moments of connection with Princetonians of the past. Notably, during the summer of 2021, I interned at the Holocaust Museum LA. While there, I was asked to help prepare for a talk by Victor Brombert, whose name I was unfamiliar with.
From some research, I learned that Brombert, the Henry Putnam Professor of Romance and Comparative Literatures, taught at Princeton from 1975 to 1999, where he received the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities and the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. I learned that he has held two Guggenheim fellowships and is the author of 15 books. (That number is now 16, as Brombert published his latest book, an essay collection called “The Pensive Citadel,” this October at the age of 99.)
I learned that Brombert was born in France in 1923 and escaped Europe with his family on a banana freighter during the German occupation. Upon his arrival in the United States, the multilingual Brombert became a Ritchie Boy — a member of a special military intelligence unit that interrogated prisoners in Europe to save lives.
Brombert and I first connected over Zoom last year, and he told me about his long career in academia, his love of writing and reading, and how he almost became an opera singer. After our call, I lamented the fact that I would never be able to spend a semester — or two or three — learning from him in a seminar room in East Pyne.
In “The Permanent Sabbatical,” the final essay in “The Pensive Citadel,” Brombert writes about his Princeton retirement party: “At the party, in response to my colleagues’ speeches, I quipped that my new retiree status was really the beginning of a ‘permanent sabbatical.’ I did not add that I was determined to shun self-pity, that I had privately promised to avoid replicating a scene I had so often witnessed: namely, the sight of aging colleagues who no longer occupied offices but continued to haunt the corridors of the department in search of welcoming faces. Some of them had been campus celebrities. Now they were distressed because the new students and the recently appointed young faculty did not know who they were.”
Brombert has not become a corridor lurker. I would have never heard his stories had I not been in the right place at the right time. Yet, I was, and I am very grateful for that.
On November 11, 2023, Brombert turned 100 years old. Shortly after his birthday, I visited Brombert at his home in Princeton. He turned on a fire, rested his cane on a chair — he emphasized he can get around without it — and sat down across from me. Brombert shared stories from his past century, impressions of his time at the University, and the secret of how to live to 100. On numerous occasions, he interjected his own reflections with hearty laughs and sprinklings of song and poetry. He remarked on my French-sounding first name. I told him that it regretfully does not correlate with a particularly strong command of the language. He told me it’s a pity I don’t know any Yiddish — I agree. I wish I could gracefully move between languages like he can.
While my peers and I may have been born nearly a quarter century too late to enroll in Brombert’s courses, his voice and stories remain astute, poignant, and humorous. Excerpts of our conversation, edited for clarity and concision, follow.
Julie Levey: How did you celebrate your 100th birthday?
Victor Brombert: It was first at the University. The Council of Humanities organized a celebration. There was a panel in which they discussed books I liked, but basically discussed supposedly me and my recent book, and that was extremely touching and moving. Overwhelming, even. I didn’t recover very quickly. But before I could even recover, there was another party on my real birthday, which is November 11, which in France was not called Veterans’ Day. In France, it was known as Victory Day. And my father used to take me to the Champs-Élysées for the parade and would say, “Well, this is for you, your parade!” And I was a bit skeptical about that. But I liked the idea. I liked it immensely. And so on my real birthday, my wife had planned to invite a number of our friends. We were very, very fortunate. We lost many friends, lost them forever. But we also — and this is rather unusual at a certain age — made new friends. A lot of them. Quite a group. And warm, real friends. She invited them for that party. There were toasts again. Some speeches, and even I couldn’t keep silent.
JL: What are a few of the most important lessons you’ve learned in the past century?
VB: I learned a lot from my father. Not only tenderness, respect for people, and especially for people who are not as fortunate as we are or we were. But in addition to respect, I think I also learned from him skepticism. A very constructive skepticism it was, and I have tried to practice it. It helped me read between the lines and hear between the words. It also made it possible for me later to be a good interrogator as a Ritchie Boy in frontline military intelligence, and it ultimately made it possible for me to be, I think, a respectable literary critic [and] reader.
JL: What are your thoughts on the role of universities in society?
VB: Well, there was a time when even less fortunate families did not think that the education of a university was immediately connected to getting a good job. It was an opening of possibilities. It was the discovery of beauty, of culture, of knowledge, in the humanities, especially liberal arts. But for various reasons — some of them political, some of them economic, some of them intellectual — students and families expect [university educations] to be leading to gainful life. Security for teachers, for professors is no longer available the same way. Many are adjuncts now and exploited, used. And then there is of course the political ignorance of many people and universities and university leaders. The golden age was a time when knowledge was in itself gratuitous.
JL: If you had to create a reading list for all Princeton students, which authors would be on it?
VB: I would put high on my list Virginia Woolf. “To the Lighthouse” in particular. I would put Primo Levi on it. I would want them to read Stendhal, and I would want them to read his autobiography, “The Life of Henry Brulard.”
JL: What are some of your best memories from your quarter-century teaching at Princeton?
VB: I liked the conversations with students at lunch. I remember being greeted the first time in my college dining hall, Rockefeller. I was greeted by one person with a snicker because I wasn’t known yet. They said, “What are you doing at our table? You look awfully mature.” So I remember the expression “awfully mature.” But I went back and we talked about sports, weekends. They said, “You must be bored.” I said, “No, I’m not bored at all.”
JL: Where do you like to go around Princeton?
VB: Now, I am much more confined. I live surrounded by beautiful trees, and I’m very happy. But this is not what I used to do. I used to be on campus, to begin with. I used to walk a lot. I used to enjoy looking at stores and frequenting liquor stores, for instance. Yes, it was a different life. But it was not the life in Paris. As a child in Paris, as an early adolescent, I skipped school occasionally and took the subway — the métro — and emerged just anywhere, in a foreign land, and started walking with the crowds. I was an anonymous walker in the multitude and I call this my pre-reading. Years later, I read Baudelaire [on] the flâneur, and T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” I had already been there — walking, and looking, and feeling the rhythm of the city, and so on. That you cannot have in Princeton because you haven’t got the crowds, you haven’t got the distance.
JL: On November 11, 2023, the same day you turned 100, Princeton lost to Yale in the bonfire-determining football game. As a Yale alum and professor and a Princeton professor, who were you rooting for?
VB: I don’t ever go now to a football game between Yale and Princeton because whatever I may do is dangerous for me. So I better avoid that trap.
JL: What makes you laugh?
VB: Humor makes me laugh. Pain makes me laugh also. My wife cannot understand that. If I have a sudden stabbing pain, I laugh. I don’t know why; it’s interesting. Other people make other noises.
JL: What’s the secret to living to 100?
VB: Naps! Of course! I used to love them. Now I need them. But I still love them and they are great. Very refreshing. Yes, there are some tricks. That’s one of them. Moderate drinking has, I think, had a good influence. Not saying nasty things about people. Keeping a smile. And no matter what, my grandmother taught me my most important lesson. When I was about eight, I had lunch with my grandmother. And I would grab the food and she would say, “Never grab food. Always ask first.” I said, “Yeah, but what if I’m alone?” And the answer came stunningly, she said, “Especially when you’re alone.” And I quickly understood what she meant: one has to keep up one’s dignity and one’s decorum.
Julie Levey is a senior Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
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