Study Guide

Timothy Findley

Timothy Findley Essay - Critical Essays

Findley, Timothy (Vol. 102)

Introduction

Timothy Findley 1930–

Canadian novelist, short story writer, playwright, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Findley through 1995. See also, Timothy Findley Criticism.

A prize-winning author, Findley is recognized as one of Canada's preeminent literary figures. He frequently makes reference to historical events, figures, and other works of literature, and his writings, according to John F. Hulcoop, are evocative in nature, "[compelling] the critic to recover his senses (see more, hear more) by making direct appeals to the viewer-listener-reader through sight, sound and style: these are what force us to pay attention—to look and listen and mark his words." Thematically, Findley's works typically focus on the past and history, isolation, identity, war, madness, and authority.

Biographical Information

Born in Toronto, Ontario, Findley learned of sorrow at an early age: a sibling died when he was a child and Findley's father essentially abandoned the family for a time by suddenly enlisting in the Canadian armed forces. Due in part to illness, Findley never formally finished his secondary education and initially pursued—and succeeded in establishing—a career in acting. He worked with such renowned actresses as Ruth Gordon, toured in a production of The Matchmaker, and participated in the first season of the renowned Stratford Theater Festival in Stratford, Ontario. He spent some time acting in England at the suggestion of Sir Alec Guinness, whom he had met at Stratford. Eventually, Findley began writing as an adult—he wrote his first story during a time of illness while a teenager—to prove a point to Gordon, with whom he was acting at the time. In Gordon and her friend, the renowned American dramatist Thornton Wilder, Findley found encouragement and advice—and ultimately a second career. In addition to his work as a playwright, fiction writer, and scriptwriter—he was employed at one point as a scriptwriter in California—he also served as a radio broadcast journalist in Canada. Findley has received numerous honors and awards in his career, including the Governor General's Award for the novel The Wars (1977), and has served as president of International PEN's English-Canadian Centre and as playwright-in-residence at Canada's National Arts Centre.

Major Works

The past, marginalization, mental illness, and interpersonal conflict are central to Findley's art. In his first novel, The Last of the Crazy People (1967), Findley focuses on a dysfunctional family and the tensions and numerous conflicts that arise between its members. The world of the novel's protagonist, eleven-year-old Hooker Winslow, is dramatically shaped by his fear of being left alone, his mother's refusal to leave her bedroom, his father's ineffectuality, and his mentally unbalanced brother—items that eventually culminate in suicide and murder. Conflict and isolation, however, are not limited to domesticity and familial life in Findley's art. For example, the 1976 drama Can You See Me Yet? is set in an insane asylum whereas the setting of The Wars (1977) is World War I. Described by critics as a powerful account of how war simultaneously defines and destroys the personality, The Wars relates, in documentary style, the life of Robert Ross, a Canadian soldier serving overseas who eventually succumbs to desertion, theft, and murder. In Famous Last Words (1981), one of Findley's best-known novels, Findley shifts his focus to World War II. Having Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, a persona created by American poet Ezra Pound, as one of its central characters, this novel is filled with references to historical figures, including Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, German politician Joachim von Ribbentrop, Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo, and the former Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (The novel's publication in England, in fact, had to be delayed until the deaths of Edward and Wallis Simpson for fear of a libel suit.) Mauberly's fascist beliefs and "historical" writings, scrawled on the wall of his hotel room and found by American soldiers, detail a plan to depose the victors of World War II (presumably the Germans) and place the Windsors in a position from which they can rule all of Europe. This book has been praised for its commentary on history and politics, truth and reality, twentieth-century society, and corruption, themes also found in The Butterfly Plague (1969), which portrays 1930s Hollywood as a dystopia, and in the 1986 mystery The Telling of Lies. Findley's more recent works continue to incorporate themes and techniques employed in earlier writings. In Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) and Headhunter (1993), for example, Findley draws characters from other literary works. In the former novel, Findley updates the biblical story of the great flood. Noah's ark, the Jewish god Yahweh's covenant with Noah, and the survival of the human species. In Findley's version, however, Noah is a misogynistic dictator (married to a feminist) who forbids certain species to enter the ark, thereby ensuring their extinction. Also, in this fabulistic rendering of the flood in which Noah entertains his maker with dramas and theatrics, the ark's residents include a unicorn, an angel, and a talking cat. Headhunter alludes to a more recent literary work, namely Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Though largely set in a psychiatric hospital in modern-day Toronto, in a world plagued with moral depravity, crime, and disease, Headhunter, like Heart of Darkness, focuses on the struggle of good versus evil between characters named Marlow and Kurtz. Identity and the past are central to Findley's most recent novel, The Piano Man's Daughter (1995), which largely concerns a Canadian man's search for clues about his pyromaniac mother and his ancestry. Findley is also known for his short stories and his work as a playwright and scriptwriter. His short stories share thematic similarities with many of his novels and have been collected in Dinner along the Amazon (1984) and Stones (1988).

Critical Reception

Regarded as a master stylist and writer of engaging fiction, Findley has been the recipient of numerous awards. In addition to the Governor General's award and numerous other prizes, he has received the Canada Council Senior Arts Award, an ANIK award for the documentary Dieppe: 1942 (1979) and an Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists award for The National Dream (1974), a series of scripts about the development of the Canadian railway system. Though Findley typically employs Canadian characters and settings, his work has found audiences throughout North America and Europe. He is often praised for his thematic interests, engaging style, and the psychological insight and acuity with which he renders his characters; his portraits of women, children, and marginalized members of society, as well as his focus on conflict and mental health, have been particularly extolled. As John F. Hulcoop has argued, among Canadian writers, Findley's "international reputation [is] second only to that of Margaret Atwood."

Principal Works

The Last of the Crazy People (novel) 1967
The Paper People (teleplay) 1967
The Butterfly Plague (novel) 1969
Don't Let the Angels Fall (screenplay) 1969
The Journey (radio play) 1970
The Whiteoaks of Jalna [adaptor; from the novels by Mazo de la Roche] (teleplay) 1971–72
The National Dream [with William Whitehead] (teleplay) 1974
Can You See Me Yet? (drama) 1976
The Wars (novel) 1977
Dieppe: 1942 (teleplay) 1979
John A.—Himself! (drama) 1979
Other People's Children [with William Whitehead] (teleplay) 1980
Famous Last Words (novel) 1981
Daybreak at Pisa: 1945...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Criticism

John F. Hulcoop (essay date Winter 1981)

SOURCE: "'LOOK! LISTEN! MARK MY WORDS!': Paying Attention to Timothy Findley's Fictions," in Canadian Literature, No. 91, Winter, 1981, pp. 22-47.

[In the following essay, Hulcoop provides a stylisticc discussion of Findley's work, examining how Findley uses textual and sensual markers in his early fiction as a means of drawing the reader into the text.]

"It's all an attempt not to say what you don't want to say. You've achieved art when you cannot be misconstrued.

              (Timothy Findley, in Conversations with Graeme Gibson)

In an age of structuralist and...

(The entire section is 11248 words.)

Alberto Manguel (review date June-July 1984)

SOURCE: "Findley's People," in Books in Canada, Vol. 13, No. 6, June-July 1984, pp. 13-14, 16.

[In the highly favorable review below, Manguel offers a stylistic and thematic overview of Dinner along the Amazon, noting how this work is representative of and related to Findley's other writings.]

We always arrive too late or too early in Timothy Findley's stories. The event has already taken place, or will take place sometime later, once we have left the page, or perhaps it will never take place. "Sometime—Later—Not Now" is the title of one of the stories in Dinner Along the Amazon (which is one of the first four titles in Penguin's new Penguin Short...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)

Boyd Tonkin (review date 27 March 1987)

SOURCE: "Hitler's Understudy," in New Statesman, Vol. 113, No. 2922, March 27, 1987, p. 33.

[In the favorable review below, Tonkin discusses Findley's focus on history, historical figures, and nostalgia in Famous Last Words, noting the book's contemporary relevance.]

In this century novelists have their own special Valhalla, a place of mirth and luxury to which many are called but few chosen. It would astonish me if Famous Last Words didn't at some stage receive this final accolade: 'soon to be a major motion picture.' What makes it so unmistakably a work of our time is the uncanny sensation that it has already been one.

Published in his...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Keith Garebian (review date November 1988)

SOURCE: "Findley's Fine Line Between Untidy Life and Orderly Art," in Quill & Quire, Vol. 54, No. 11, November, 1988, p. 17.

[In the following primarily positive review of Stones, Garebian assesses several stories in the collection.]

Timothy Findley's latest collection of short stories [Stones] can be defined by many elements: a theatricality in imagery and characterization, an evocative sense of Toronto (particularly Rosedale and Queen Street West), a compassion for emotional desperadoes, and an urge for retrospective regeneration—a looking back into the details of a past, a gliding in and out of specific moments in a character's life, a dispersing...

(The entire section is 992 words.)

Lorraine M. York (essay date September 1989)

SOURCE: "Civilian Conflict: Systems of Warfare in Timothy Findley's Early Fiction," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XV, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 336-47.

[York is an educator. In the essay below, she delineates Findley's focus on war and conflict in The Last of the Crazy People, "Lemonade," and other early works.]

It is no coincidence or quirk of fate that two of Timothy Findley's early works, The Last of the Crazy People (1967) and the short story "Lemonade" (composed mid-50s; publ. 1980) open with a "stand-to" at dawn. But here the soldier on his lonely vigil is a young child, and the war in which he participates is a domestic one. Nevertheless,...

(The entire section is 5139 words.)

Sharon Oard Warner (review date 29 April 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Stones, in The Mew York Times Book Review, Vol. 95, April 29, 1990, p. 38.

[In the following brief review, Warner praises Findley's characterization and focus on isolation in the short fiction collection Stones.]

Musing on the fervent need of children to love their parents, a middle-aged narrator admits. "I would have loved a stone". He might well be speaking for any of the characters in this new collection of stories [Stones] by Timothy Findley. Driven to love, they find that love itself drives them away. "Something in the signature informed him she would always be alone," we are told as one man reflects on a note left by his mother....

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Sandra Martin (review date March 1993)

SOURCE: "The Horror and the River," in Quill & Quire, Vol. 59, No. 3, March, 1993, p. 47.

[In the excerpt below, Martin offers a primarily negative review of Headhunter.]

"On a winter's day, while a blizzard raged through the streets of Toronto, Lilah Kemp inadvertently set Kurtz free from page 92 of Heart of Darkness." That is how Timothy Findley begins his monumental new novel, Headhunter, the latest in a list of fictional works that includes half a dozen novels and two collections of short stories, and three plays. Lilah, an out-patient at the Queen Street Mental Health Hospital, is sitting amidst the hangings and the pools in the lobby of Raymond...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

James Marcus (review date 5 June 1994)

SOURCE: "Mr. Kurtz—He Back!" in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, June 5, 1994, p. 40.

[Marcus is a critic and translator. In the review below, he favorably assesses Headhunter.]

With eight books of fiction and a number of plays to his credit, including Famous Last Words and The Telling of Lies, an Edgar Award winner, the Canadian writer Timothy Findley is something of an institution north of the 49th parallel. In the United States he has achieved much critical attention but little popular success. Perhaps Headhunter will remedy the situation. This long, densely populated novel is already a best seller in Canada and its fusion of jeremiad...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

John Rechy (review date 17 July 1994)

SOURCE: "The Heart of Madness," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 17, 1994, pp. 2, 8.

[Rechy is a novelist. In the review below, he provides a laudatory assessment of Headhunter.]

This exceptional novel [Headhunter] opens with a smashing paragraph that elevates a reader's expectations:

On a winter's day, while a blizzard raged through the streets of Toronto, Lilah Kemp inadvertently set Kurtz free from Page 92 of Heart of Darkness. Horror-stricken, she tried to force him back between the covers. The escape took place at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, where Lilah Kemp sat reading beside the rock pool....

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Gary Draper (review date April 1995)

SOURCE: "The Past Recaptured," in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, No. 3, April, 1995, pp. 35-36.

[Draper is a libratian. In the review below, he praises The Piano Man's Daughter for its focus on the past, its characterization, and its readability.]

Some books set in the past try to ape the literary conventions of the past; some eschew them altogether. In The Piano Man's Daughter, Timothy Findley goes for the fundamentals. Without any suggestion of mimicry, this splendid novel captures the feel of high Victorian Gothic. It tells a multi-layered, multi-generational story of family madness and mysterious births. Attics. Dark secrets.

Melodrama is...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

John Bemrose (review date May 1995)

SOURCE: "Rural Roots," in MacLean's, Vol. 108, May, 1995, p. 66.

[In the following, Bemrose assesses the plot and principal theme of The Piano Man's Daughter.]

So often, Timothy Findley's fiction circles some central image, like a tribe dancing around a fire. In his 1977 novel, The Wars, it was horses: horses screaming under the artillery barrages of the First World War, or stampeding away from the madness of the trenches. Findley's 1993 novel, Headhunter, offered the image of its heroine, Lilah Kemp, the unforgettable street woman whose schizophrenia harbored an element of strange, life-nourishing sanity. And in his richly layered new novel, The Piano...

(The entire section is 864 words.)