Reviews 2010

Reading the Novels of Aidan Chambers: Seven Essays

Reading the Novels of Aidan Chambers: Seven Essays. Nancy Chambers (ed.). Stroud, Glos.: Thimble Press, 2009. 155 pages. £8 (paperback).

This slim, inexpensive collection of seven essays by six authors on Aidan Chambers’s ‘Dance Sequence’ is as much an homage to Chambers the man as much as it is to his novels. Edited by his wife, Nancy Chambers, the essays attempt to give form to and comment on various aspects of the six novels that comprise the Sequence in ways that stress the novels’ common themes and their readership. In the introduction, Nancy Chambers narrates the collection’s history, starting from the publication of two key papers by Mary Russell which drew the Sequence together. In addition to these two articles, there are five other contributions from personal acquaintances of Aidan Chambers resulting in a festschrift celebrating this inspirational teacher, editor and author.

In the UK, Chambers’s work is well known and widely admired for its cutting edge choices of topics and its innovative narrative techniques. For instance, his first novel, Breaktime, from 1978, adapts Joyce’s techniques in Ulysses for an adolescent readership and presents us with one of the finest cerebral depictions of adolescents having sex in English literature to date. His second novel, Dance on My Grave, from 1982, was one of the earliest British novels to depict gay teenagers without making sexual orientation ‘the problem’ at the centre of the novel. Later topic choices have included the nature of faith and the role of suffering, euthanasia, bisexuality, rape, extra-marital affairs and adolescent parenthood, and in each case his “radical” choice of topic has offered an unexpected viewpoint and shaped the ways in which subsequent British authors have tackled the topic (Reynolds 2007). His complex narrative techniques have been no less innovative or influential. He is, however, so “charmingly English” (Church, 105), that it was a pleasant surprise to find that two essays in this collection are concerned with his reception in translation, another mentions reception in translation, and the authors of the articles reflect a similarly eclectic mix of nations.

The collection begins with the piece by Mary Russell which inspired the volume. First published in The Lion & the Unicorn, this article on ‘The Spiritual Geography of Domestic and Narrative Spaces in Aidan Chambers’s Dance Sequence’ links the spatiality of Chambers’s novels with his protagonists’ narratives of spiritual and emotional maturation. Noting that “In the early books of the Dance Sequence, the central question is when and how young women are either excluded from the adolescent male’s domestic space or included in it” (15), Russell traces a trajectory running throughout the Sequence towards a merging of domestic spaces with narrative spaces. This enables her to mark another transition within the Sequence from male to female, and so motivates Chambers’s creation of a female protagonist in the final volume, This is All, from 2005. For although Aidan Chambers might think of these novels as a “movement from … the male to the female, or more accurately, from the masculine to the feminine” (812) many readers, myself included, were surprised or even disconcerted by the appearance of a female narrator for the majority of his last brick of a novel.

Martha Westwater’s Kristevan reading of the first three novels in the Sequence focuses on the topics of adolescent depression and fascination with death, but also makes a lengthy aside into a discussion of the figure of the mother or mother surrogate who looms large throughout the Sequence. Westwater draws connections between Chambers the man and his fictional characters, and her adoption of a Kristevan approach enables her to find direct connections between Chambers’s portrayal of melancholia and sexual desire and his playful language experiments.

Lissa Paul’s article starts in true festschrift style with an anecdote about Chambers the man, this time focussing on his role as a teacher trainer and connecting his work there with the Dance Sequence. The key aspect she wants to emphasise is the act of recognition “knowing again, a re-knowing...a re-cognition” (63) in relation to the philosophical, literary and religious explorations (which are present in all the novels in the Dance Sequence. It is noteworthy that she does not mention explorations of sexuality, although they appear in all the novels. Paul claims that Chambers’s technique of mixing genres within the novel (for instance by including extracts from letters or diaries, newspaper clippings, poems, essays and so on) forces readers to recognise, re-know, re-cognise that which they thought they ‘knew’. She also draws attention to the classical ‘pre-texts’ which appear palimpsestically within each of his novels (each of the novels in the Dance Sequence alludes – typically through theme and innovative writing technique – to canonised novels e.g. Ulysses is the pre-text for Breaktime, and Kafka’s The Bridge is the pre-text for The Toll Bridge).

The next three papers are concerned with the reception of the Sequence. Jan Robbins’s contribution takes the collection of essays in a new direction by offering much the same kind of shift in genre as those Chambers includes in his novels. Robbins provides a translation from the original Swedish of a heated blogging exchange about This is All. The bloggers – all of whom are adults – clearly appreciated the novel and their squeals of delight are accompanied by insightful comments into the role of the translator. Anthea Church, to whom This is All is dedicated, takes us back to Chambers’s primary readership: teenagers. She discusses the ways in which teenagers in her classroom responded to Now I Know and picks up similarities with the final novel. Emer O’Sullivan’s contribution was originally written in German and discussed the translation of the humour of Chambers’s novels into German. In translating the article into English, a further dimension is added and the author’s and translator’s notes which follow the article throw yet more light onto the complexity of effective translation.

The collection ends with the second paper by Mary Russell which focuses on the final two novels in the Sequence. This article also connects Chambers’s writing technique with his content. The issue she addresses here is the formal challenges to interpretation. The topic is foregrounded in Postcards from No Man’s Land, where both Jacobs must negotiate another language and culture, and eventually come to see finer nuances of interpretation.

In the Introduction, Nancy Chambers implies her dissatisfaction with the festschrift format, as something one should “avoid being tempted into” (10). In practice, the resulting volume retains the celebratory quality of the traditional festschrift with the contemporary demands for academic quality. In this way, the collection of essays reframes the genre of the festschrift in much the same way that Chambers has reframed the adolescent novel in the Dance Sequence.

Works cited

Chambers, Aidan. Breaktime. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

Chambers, Aidan. Dance on My Grave. London: The Bodley Head, 1982.

Chambers, Aidan. Now I Know. London: The Bodley Head, 1987.

Chambers, Aidan. The Toll Bridge. London: The Bodley Head, 1992.

Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from No Man’s Land. London: The Bodley Head, 1999.

Chambers, Aidan. This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn. London: The Bodley Head, 2005.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. London: Penguin Modern Classics [1922], 2000.

Reynolds, Kimberley. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Lydia Kokkola
University of Turku, Finland