Findley, Timothy (Vol. 102)
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.
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.
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).
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."
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 (play) 1982
Strangers at the Door (radio play) 1982
∗The Wars (screenplay) 1983
Dinner along the Amazon (short stories) 1984
Not Wanted on the Voyage (novel) 1984
The Telling of Lies: A Mystery (novel) 1986
Stones (short stories) 1988
Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer's Notebook (nonfiction) 1990
Headhunter (novel) 1993
The Stillborn Lover (drama) 1993
The Piano Man's Daughter (novel) 1995
∗This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name.
(The entire section is 137 words.)
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 deconstructive criticism it may be salutary for the critic to begin by reminding himself of the dangers of misconstruction—despite that cunning cartographer Harold Bloom (author of A Map of Misreading) who insists [in The Anxiety of Influence] that "[t]here are no interpretations but only misinterpretations." Susan Sontag, in a famous essay [in Against Interpretation and Other Essays], inveighs "against interpretation," wittily dismissing it as "the revenge of the intellect upon art." She calls upon commentators to recover their senses: "to see more, to hear more, to feel more." The function of criticism, says Sontag, should be "to show how [art] is what it is, even that it is what it...
(The entire section is 11248 words.)
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 Fiction series), and the title fits almost all pieces in this brilliant book. "… There are no beginnings, not even to stories," writes Findley in "Losers, Finders: Strangers at the Door." "There are only places where you make an entrance into someone else's life and either stay or turn and go away." This sense of distant continuity, of solidity in all of Findley's work, lends reality to the world he portrays. His characters have lives of their own, lives that come from a past we, the readers, are not asked to witness, and drift toward a future we are not invited to share. Their history, which is also the history of Findley's obsessions, is taken for granted.
The background of Findley's world is ours, however; it is known to...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)
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 native Canada in 1981, Timothy Findley's novel has had to wait for an English edition as a result of what the blurb coyly calls 'legal reasons'. In a multi-national cast that also features Lana Turner, Ezra Pound and Joachim von Ribbentrop, two of its principal figures are the late Duchess and Duke of Windsor. It hints, among other revelations, that Wallis Simpson and the former Edward VIII preferred to make love under the unsmiling gaze of a photograph of the ex-king's mother, Queen Mary.
Where does gossip end and history begin? Balzac and Tolstoy muddied these waters long before today's theorists of discontinuity started to splash about in them. Presenting the fate of Europe in the age of the dictators as an unlucky-bag...
(The entire section is 769 words.)
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 of details within a compass of shifting moods, varieties of human nature, and the inevitability of story-line.
There are two complementary pairs of stories in Stones. In "The Name's the Same" and "Real Life Writes Real Bad," there are characters we have already met in Dinner Along the Amazon, Findley's first short-story collection that, despite its evident virtues, had a somewhat unfinished quality. In this collection Findley's preoccupations, while repetitive in the two sets of stories, justify his implicit question: Why am I obsessed with you? A tentative answer can be found in the configurations of love and desperation. "Bragg and Minna" and "A Gift of Mercy," the first two stories in Stones, probe...
(The entire section is 992 words.)
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, these early tales of civilian conflict are war texts; many of the basic strategies and structures of military behaviour inform these works, and even particular wars serve as touchstones or intertexts within them. Indeed, in The Last of the Crazy People, Findley's first novel, an entire nineteenth-century war serves as a complex hidden metaphor for the domestic skirmishes of the twentieth-century Winslow family: the American Civil War.
Polarity and conflict have always fascinated Findley as a writer, and both are present in large measure in a very early story of his, "About Effie" (1956), a work which has nothing to do with war as we normally conceive of it. The story opens with a veritable domestic attack; young Neil...
(The entire section is 5139 words.)
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. Couples sleep in separate beds and imagine the infidelities of their mates. Even the animals suffer isolation. While putting his dying brother's house in order, a man wishes he could explain things to the cat that will "wonder, perhaps forever, where all his people had gone and why they had deserted him." In someone else's hands, these characters might provoke merely pity or irritation, but Mr. Findley, the winner of Canada's prestigious Governor-General's Award, has the skilled touch of a surgeon. Under our skins, he reminds us, we all look much the same. Although they occupy the same landscape and frequent the same places, the characters in his stories remain, strangers to one another. Like the stones on the beach at Dieppe, where the...
(The entire section is 254 words.)
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 Moriyama's Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, "framed by the woven jungle of cotton trees and vines that passed for botanic atmosphere," when Kurtz makes his escape from the literary cage Joseph Conrad fashioned for him nearly 100 years ago.
An intriguing beginning, but there is nothing playful in Findley's intent. Headhunter is an expedition into the heart of evil as it festers in the male ego in the jungle of post-contemporary Toronto. Kurtz is the chief psychiatrist of an institution that is closely modelled on the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. His nemesis, Marlow, is a practising psychiatrist in the same facility. Findley's portrait of Kurtz as a sinister, controlling demi-god is all the more devastating...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
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 with psychological thriller may win Mr. Findley the American audience he deserves.
Set in Toronto in the near future, Headhunter makes the tail end of the millennium look bleak indeed. Gangs of silver-suited skinheads, called Moonmen, rove the streets, pollution has given the sky a permanent yellow tint and a mysterious plague called sturnusemia—transmitted, we are told, by starlings—has begun to take its toll on the population. What's more, this physical decay seems to reflect an ethical and moral collapse. According to one character, the psychiatrist Charles Marlow, "Sturnusemia and AIDS were not the only plagues Civilization—sickened—had itself become a plague And its course … could be followed by...
(The entire section is 802 words.)
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. She had not even said come forth, but there Kurtz stood before her, framed by the woven jungle of cotton trees and vines that passed for botanic atmosphere.
Lilah is a schizophrenic, an outpatient in a psychiatric treatment center. She roams Toronto while pushing a baby carriage containing a copy of Wuthering Heights. From childhood she has been able to conjure up characters from her favorite books. Now she believes she has unleashed the evil Kurtz of Joseph Conrad's famous novella onto the streets of Toronto, but Kurtz is not a figment of Lilah's imagination. He's the chief of Toronto's Parkin Institute of Psychiatry.
The prospect of Lilah as substitute Marlow (the pursuer of...
(The entire section is 899 words.)
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 badly served by plot summary, which throws into visible relief the coincidences, parallels, and ironic twists which, in the context of the book, can be swallowed whole. Briefly, however, the piano man is Tom Wyatt, and his daughter is Lily, a creative, bright, eccentric woman attracted to music and to fire; the novel tells her story, in fragments, from conception to death. Inevitably, it is also a book about the storyteller, her son Charlie, born in her shadow, who spends much of his life in putting together the pieces of Lily's history and his own. And, because the mystery Charlie has to solve is rooted in the past, it is also the story of Lily's mother Ede, and her love for the piano man, and her marriage to his brother Frederick....
(The entire section is 851 words.)
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 Man's Daughter, Findley conjures up the presence of a simple field in a southern Ontario farm. This field—like both the horses and Lilah Kemp—becomes a touchstone for what is sacred in Findley's vision: a buffer against a society that seems bent on destroying innocence and psychic health.
Findley is, in the best, nondenominational sense, a religious novelist. His books reflect a world where wholeness has been grievously broken, although he occasionally allows a character to catch a glimpse of redemption shining among the fragments. In the opening pages of The Piano Man's Daughter, the first-person narrator, Charlie Kilworth, seems afflicted by a peculiarly modern sense of rootlessness and loss. It is 1939,...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
Caldwell, Joan. "Findley, Timothy." In The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, edited by William Toye, pp. 257-59. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Brief biocritical survey of Findley's career.
D'Haen, Theo. "Timothy Findley: Magical Realism and the Canadian Postmodern." In Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, pp. 217-33. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1990.
Provides a thematic analysis of The Telling of Lies, in which the book's postmodernist and magic realist elements are discussed.
Foley, Michael. "Noah's Wife's Rebellion: Timothy Findley's Use of the Mystery Plays of Noah in Not Wanted on the Voyage." Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 44 (Fall 1991): 175-82.
Studies Findley's use of medieval plays in Not Wanted on the Voyage.
Fraser, C. Gerald. Review of The Last of the Crazy People, by Timothy Findley. The New York Times Book Review 90 (13 October 1985): 38.
Extremely brief, favorable assessment of The Last of the Crazy People.
Gabriel, Barbara. "Staging Monstrosity: Genre, Life-Writing, and Timothy Findley's The Last of the Crazy...
(The entire section is 573 words.)