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Cornell University

The Reading Project

In the twelveth year of Cornell’s New Student Reading Project, this year’s incoming undergraduate class and the Cornell community will read Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us.   Published in Paris in 1975, The Life Before Us tells the story of the relationship between Momo, an illiterate Arab boy, and Madame Rosa, the Jewish ex-prostitute and Auschwitz survivor who raised him, and of the last months of their life together in the immigrant Parisian slum of Belleville. Madame Rosa now makes a living by raising the children of other prostitutes, and as her health declines Momo must seek ways of providing for them all. Momo’s distinctive, exuberant, and often hilarious take on his world provides a surprising affirmation of the possibilities for wisdom from the perspective of innocence, and of the endurance of love and beauty in the face of suffering.

Romain Gary’s life itself reads like a novel.  Born Roman Kacew in 1914, possibly in Moscow, but probably in Kursk, a small city near the Turkish border, he was a child of prodigious imagination.  His mother had been an actress who worked as a maid to support herself and her son after they had been abandoned by his father.  They moved around Europe finally landing in France where he studied law, learned to fly with the French Air Force and changed his name to Romain Gary.  Fleeing to England after the occupation of France by the Nazi’s, he served with the Free French and was a much decorated war hero.  Following the war he joined the diplomatic service in France and in 1956 was posted to Los Angeles as Counsel General where he became part of the Hollywood milieu.  At the time of his suicide in 1980 he had become one of France’s most prolific writers having published over thirty novels, essays and memoirs under four different pseudonyms.  His marriages, first to Lesley Branch the British writer and then to American actress Jean Seberg brought him celebrity.  He is the only person to with the Prix Goncourt twice—first in 1956 for his novel Les racines du ciel, and second in 1975 for this novel which he published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar, creating an elaborate hoax which was finally resolved in his suicide note where he stated that he was, indeed, Émile Ajar.

The Life Before Us contains a range of engaging topics for discussion and exploration, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and Muslim-Jewish relations, the Holocaust, the role of religion in the modern world, immigration and global geographical mobility, social inequality and poverty, sexual identity, cultures of healing, medicine and modern science, and the role of popular speech in negotiating cultural divisions.

About 50 fiction titles — recommended by faculty, staff and several student groups, including Meinig Scholars, resident advisers and Orientation leaders — were considered for the 2012 project. Other books shortlisted for this year were Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.

At New Student Orientation, students have an opportunity to discuss the book itself in small-group seminars led by faculty and staff. We also provide six presentations, held simultaneously, which we call “Cornell Contexts.” These are meant to introduce students to theme, topic, or area of study related to issues raised by the book. The Cornell Contexts presentations are meant to highlight the range of fields of study and of colleges and schools at Cornell University.

  • Professor Stacy Langwick from the Department of Anthropology will be talking about medicine and healing in cross-cultural contexts, considering what “health” means in different healing traditions, how people understand those things that threaten life, how they make meaning of sickness and misfortune, and the ways that they care for each other.
  • In the Kiplinger Theatre of the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, members of the Department of Performing and Media Arts bring characters from Romain Gary’s novel to theatrical life through the selection and adaptation of dialogue and narration from The Life Before Us.  This session will explore the adaptation process and how directors, writers and actors bring a novel to the stage or screen.
  • Steve Ceci from the Department of Human Development and Michael Macy from the Department of Sociology will be talking together about alternate views of deviant human behavior.  Many of the principal characters in The Life Before Us are outside the cultural mainstream. Sociologists suggest that deviance is in the eye of the beholder, while psychologists point to evidence of psycho-pathology.   Macy and Ceci will examine how these views overlap and what they overlook as they explore some intriguing puzzles of human behavior.
  • Ross Brann from the Department of Near Eastern Studies will discuss “The Jew, the Arab, the Arab-Jew” reflecting that the modern political conflict between Jewish and Arab nationalist movements in the land west of the Jordan River has made it all too common to think of Jews and Arabs as historically opposed. Such thinking represents something of a historical aberration especially in light of their dynamic linguistic and socio-cultural interaction. This talk will also offer critical reflections on The Life Before Us and challenge the conventional idea that “Jew” and “Arab” are inviolate and opposed categories.
  • The New Student Reading Project event at the Johnson Museum will explore a diverse array of the themes encountered in The Life Before Us. Students will be issued “Art Passports” at the event and then travel to five sites throughout the Museum to study artworks that span time, geography, and cultures, engaging in visual analysis and discussion of specific works. A special exhibition, on view from August 6 to September 2 in the study gallery on Floor 2L, will showcase photographs and prints from the Museum’s permanent collection that bring to life Paris in the 1940s and many of the themes found in the novel.

Late Monday afternoon, approximately 250 groups of about 15 first year students discuss the text in classrooms around campus.

The New Student Reading Project provides an important rite of passage for incoming students and a shared focus for the renewal of each academic year.  During the academic year, lectures, panel discussions, films and other events will relate to the reading project to encourage discussion of the issues raised by The Life Before Us.  Welcome to the discussion.

–Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education