Ross Chambers, in memoriam

It is with great sadness that we in the Australian Society for French Studies community learned today of the death of Ross Chambers (and we should like to thank Anne Freadman for letting us know).

While Ross had been in poor health for some time, this news still came as something of a shock. I shall sift into the first person singular now, as I do not wish to speak for all of us; instead, I invite people to share any memories of Ross with other ASFS members via this site.

For my part, I met Ross for the first time shortly after my arrival in Australia in 2001. I have a very powerful memory of his conference presentation on Baudelaire at ASFS (I think it must have been at UQ in 2003), which I found enthralling. I don’t think I was alone in that lecture theatre in feeling like an undergraduate receiving a masterclass in literary analysis. I can only envy those among us who were lucky enough to have Ross either as a lecturer or a supervisor. I realised there and then what a special talent he was and since that time I have taken great pleasure in reading his many and various works. Above all, though, I remember exchanging letters with Ross, who, as you will all know, refused to send emails (he did write Loiterature, after all). The personal tone of his correspondence, the great humanity (and humility) of the man came at first as something of a surprise, especially given that he did not know me well. He was, it turned out, a great reader of people as well as of literature. So, while my loss is as nothing compared with that of those of you who knew him closely, I am sad that I shall not receive any more of those beautiful letters. He was a truly magnificent scholar, one of the superstars, as Larry Schehr used to say about him, and a wonderful human being.

Alistair

4 thoughts on “Ross Chambers, in memoriam

  1. Ross Chambers taught the first class I took at the University of Michigan as a graduate student in French. I remember watching him in each class, my brain hurting in wonderful ways, as he talked about genre and concepts I had never fathomed, like invagination. I loved how his glasses had worn a groove into the skin above his ears. I loved his stories about his cat misunderstanding the genre and scratching his face. I loved that he used to give everyone an A, but he got in trouble for that, so instead we would get an A or an A-. I never worked harder for an A in my life. I have often said over the years, any time Ross’s name was mentioned, “I love that man.” It’s the only way I could sum up his kind and gentle and brilliant way of teaching us. His teaching marked me and my cohort. I can still see that when I read my colleagues’ research today, and I know he also marked generations before and after me. I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to be his student. With love, Amy Hubbell (University of Queensland)

  2. I was first introduced to Ross Chambers’ work as an undergraduate in the 1980s, when–at the prompting of Anne Freadman or possibly even Michael Spencer–i first read his writing on Gérard de Nerval, back in the good old days of academia when students were actually expected to read work published before 1945. I was immediately blown away, not only by the incredible breadth of knowledge in various disciplinary fields which underpinned that work, but in particular by the poetry and humour of Ross’s writing. That poetry would forever be present in every book that Ross published, and he remains one of the few academic i read not only for the incredible complexity of ideas translated into a comprehensible language and the artistry of his finely detailed textual analyses but for the sheer pleasure of his writing, for the wit that always shone through in his work. The first time I actually met Ross, i believe, was when he came to UQ for a series of masterclasses, probably in the mid-1990s, around the time of his writing of Loiterature, a book that i still go back to and read again and again, and one which i feel embodies Ross’s personality perhaps more than any other. By this time i was a fully fledged Rossophile, having read Story and Situation, Mélancholie et Opposition and Room for Maneuver, and i was far from the only starry-eyed postgrad (or lecturer) in the room for those classes which i still feel so incredibly privileged to have attended. Ross would take everyone by the hand and talk us through the most complex ideas, the whole time looking so frail as he rocked back and forth on a chair in the middle of us all, and threatening the whole time as if he would fall off that chair, with all of us in the room mentally (if not physically) holding out our arms to catch him. It is amazing to think of such a gentle, warm, open man at the same time as being a towering presence in French studies, in literary studies, in cultural studies, in narrative theory and in the humanities in general. I would have the opportunity to see Ross on a number of occasions since, perhaps most memorably at the 2003 Soi-disant ASFS conference, in the presence of other memorable speakers such as Larry Schehr and Michael Sherringham who, alas, are also no longer with us, as well as an ASFS in Melbourne where Ross was too ill to travel and so “beamed in” his keynote from the US.

    Ross’s passing is such a terrible loss, both professional and of course personal, in particular for those close to him, be they near or far. We still all hold out our arms to Ross and wish we could embrace him one final time.

  3. I first ‘encountered’ Ross Chambers when I started my research on HIV-AIDS testimonies. And de fil en aiguille, I got to read his article entitled “On Teaching ‘French'”. Why was the word French into inverted commas? The article starts with a tribute to Sonia Marks. This is so typical of Ross’s generosity of spirit. Then the article sets the scene of his doubts about what ‘French’ and ‘teaching’ mean. Like sitting next to someone in a plane who asks what you do for a living, and finding it hard to justify that you get paid for teaching ‘French’. By charting the history of French Studies, the article was also a subtle legitimisation of what we all at the ASFS do for a living, but also a call against complacency about our ‘discipline’ (Foucauldian inverted commas here). Afterwards I also attended the famous lecture Alistair, Amy and Joe remember with such fondness and awe. And so do I. I then exchanged a few words with Ross on our way to the Griffith University campus. That was sufficient for him to remember me, and accept to proofread one of my articles a few months later. I feel as if I have lost a close ally. An ally of ‘French’ studies in Australia.

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