Findley, Timothy (Vol. 27)
Timothy Findley 1930–
Canadian novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter.
With each of his books, Findley has more firmly established his place among Canada's important contemporary writers. Ambitious in his choice of themes and innovative in his handling of them, he writes of the human struggle against fate and questions the nature of self, love, and reality. Findley has examined these concerns from several different perspectives beginning with The Last of the Crazy People (1967). In this work, Findley portrays the life of a lonely and bewildered young boy whose tragic destiny is to murder his family.
Findley's most successful novel, The Wars, published in the United States in 1978, won the Governor General's Award in 1977. Written in a documentary style, it recounts the story of Robert Ross, an officer in the Canadian army during World War I. Findley here attempts to show that Ross's eventual death is both futile and triumphant. The Wars is described as a powerful account of how war simultaneously defines and destroys personality.
Famous Last Words (1982) is also related to war. In this novel, Findley molds Ezra Pound's poetic figure Hugh Selwyn Mauberley into a fully formed fictional character and traces his fascination with and involvement in fascist politics. Although described as flawed, many critics appraise Famous Last Words as an ambitious work that raises serious questions about the effects of political corruption and the meaning of history.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
["The Last of the Crazy People"] is almost as pleasing as its odd title. An attempt to explain the far too frequent and inexplicable headline, "'Nice Boy' Massacres Family," it is memorable not so much for its explanation (or for its gore) as for a surprisingly gentle, nostalgic quality which is wholly charming. Story and style may seem at variance, but I look forward to Findley's second.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "The Last of the Crazy People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 16, 1967, p. 14.
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Like Ben Piazza, who three years ago wrote a moving first novel about boyhood called The Exact and Very Strange Truth, Timothy Findley is an actor. Again like Piazza, he is interested in boyhood and its relationship to the adult world, and he has an actor's ear for dialogue, an actor's eye for scenes. After three years, scenes from the earlier book remain vivid in the mind; it is probable that those created by Mr. Findley [in The Last of the Crazy People] will also linger for a long time, if less happily.The first scene sets the mood, and almost—but not quite—tells us what is to happen. It is early September, after a rainless summer. An eleven-year-old boy carrying a box tiptoes out of his house in the dawn, crosses the back yard to the stable, climbs into the loft, and settles down in the straw by the half-open bale door overlooking the back of the house. The box is beside him, and so is his cat, Little Bones, whose "deadly, vibrant, yet clouded" eyes resemble his own. Together they wait and are still.
We gather from every careful word of this prologue that the boy is insane and about to do something terrible. The rest of the book, flashing back to the beginning of that hot Canadian summer, tells us of the events that have led inexorably to this September morning and of the people who contributed to them. And as we come to know the members of young Hooker Winslow's family and the middle-class community in which...
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1930's Hollywood, with its overripe stars, larger-than-life styles, extravagant successes and even more extravagant failures, and the nightmare barbarities of Hitler's Germany, make a strange juxtaposition here. "The Butterfly Plague" is full of unlikely juxtapositions, but they work to make the book consistently interesting, often disquieting, Mr. Findley's novel is an ambitious one, for he has chosen to deal with the nature of reality, the meaning of life and death and love, and the future of the human race. Despite a style and setting that sometimes verge on the campy, his unique way of perceiving people and places gives his book considerable power. "The Butterfly Plague" is mostly populated by grotesques, including a former Olympic medal swimmer who is a carrier of haemophilia and who is married to a virulent master-race Nazi; her brother; a Hollywood director; and her mother, dying of cancer. All of these people and some other Hollywood types drift in and out of one another's lives and nightmares, and what emerges is a disturbing picture of man's despair.
A review of "The Butterfly Plague," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 10, 1969 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1969 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 195, No. 6, February 10, 1969, p. 72.
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The Times Literary Supplement
[The Butterfly Plague] resembles an appreciative description of a fantastic film, the kind that depends on surrealistic images and a voguish "sense of period", more interesting to see than to read about…. A quick succession of intricate, brightly-coloured scenes must have been the aim; but Timothy Findley cannot, as a novelist, rival a film-director's pace. Instead of being fixed in cinematic images, the details of landscape, facial expression, physical appearance and (especially) clothing have to be set out in lists, as if they were instructions to the property department, the designer and the wardrobe mistress. Thus the novel proceeds more slowly than can have been intended.
The setting is Southern California, 1938, with flashbacks to Nazi Germany. The mood is one of fear, with epicene women and men wincing at hazards as normal as motor accidents or as nightmarish as Nazidom….
[Many disasters occur to] bizarre characters. Miss Trainer, a motor-cycling nurse, discovers a lady in "rather old-maidish drawers" and lisle stockings, hanging from a tree, "with a black-handled knife inserted in her vagina". Miss Trainer swoons away—but the cold-blooded reader will be less perturbed, since this atrocity seems, like so much in the book, to be presented rather for its pictorial value than for any literary purpose. Occasionally there is a flicker of Firbank in the writing; but, generally, the book is too stodgy,...
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We no longer believe that some subjects are more appropriate for literary treatment than others: nowadays, every human activity, no matter how banal or disgusting, offers itself as legitimate material for the imagination to work on and turn into art…. There seem to be some subjects, however, which have a built-in intransigence to literary treatment because their historical reality, overwhelmingly banal, perhaps, or overwhelmingly disgusting, surpasses anything that the creative imagination can make of them. Writers instinctively shun these topics, it seems to me, and rightly so. It takes considerable nerve, therefore, to do what Timothy Findley has done [in The Wars]—to write a novel squarely about the unspeakable reality of the 1914–18 war in order to make that reality even more unspeakably real. Having read it, we're meant to put his book down angered and disgusted once again by the sheer futility of those four years, with the additional wrenching caused by our concern for the fate of the book's fictional Canadian hero, Robert Ross.
It's plain that Findley realizes he's dealing with intractable material because he camouflages the fiction of his story by pretending that the novel is a species of historical document, taking as its subject the life of Robert Ross, piecing it together from tape-recorded interviews, press-cuttings from the archives, old photographs, diaries, and the like. This technique enables Findley to...
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Thomas R. Edwards
Timothy Findley's "The Wars" is … elegantly written and structured and well aware of what can't be said about important human experiences. (Like other Canadian writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and Marian Engel, Mr. Findley seems closer and more responsive to natural mystery than his peers south of the border.) (p. 14)
The book has flaws, certainly. Its rather poetic prose sometimes turns overripe. Its climactic moment—when Ross disobeys orders, shoots his commander and leads a herd of panicky horses to what turns out to be their death in a burning barn—is over-prepared for by insistent imagery of horses and fires….
But for the most part "The Wars" is an impressively sustained meditation on how war crystallizes an unfinished personality even while destroying it, and on how the past remains available and valuable only in our ability to reinvent and reinterpret it. Ross's terrible story is also a terribly beautiful one, and it shows that Timothy Findley is a writer worth keeping an eye on. (p. 26)
Thomas R. Edwards, "The Grim War and the Great War," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 9, 1978, pp. 14, 26.∗
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Gary T. Davenport
[Brevity] is disastrous in the hands of Timothy Findley. In fact understatement of a very slick and ineffective sort is chronically recurrent in The Wars…. The story is well told, the scenes follow each other with sure logic, and, with one or two exceptions, the thematic interest arises naturally from the events instead of being forced.
The stylistic slickness of which I complained consists mainly of the frequent use of telegraphic one-liners (which one reviewer has associated—I think wrongly—with Hemingway) and typographical cleverness obviously calculated to bring the reader to the edge of his seat. (Two-word sentences. One-word paragraphs. Triple spacing. The works.) Another "special effect" is the studied sensitivity of the prose that occasionally emerges, especially toward the end of the book…. Cheap attempts to add intensity or beauty are never less welcome than when they are unnecessary, as they are here. When the author forgets to be "creative," his prose is entirely adequate to the task, and the intensity and beauty take care of themselves. The book is in any case a substantial performance, and I do not want to make it sound trivial…. [Findley] has overcome heavy odds by writing a convincing historical novel about an event which has been so momentous—and ultimately so inaccessible—as the war which all of us who call ourselves "modern" have come to see as our point of origin. (pp. xxi-xxii)...
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In Timothy Findley's novel The Wars, Robert Ross, soon after arriving in Europe, finds himself leading a line of horses through thick green fog. The foul smell of the air puzzles him, but Poole, his batman, detects the odour of chlorine that has soaked into the ground.
The smell was unnerving—as if some presence were lurking in the fog like a dragon in a story. Poole was quite correct; the ground was saturated with gas. Chlorine and phosgene were currently both in use. Mustard gas was still to come.
This matter-of-fact chemical information is typical of the novel's verisimilitude. An almost documentary realism seems to seduce the reader into accepting the authenticity of the account. By mentioning "a dragon in a story," however, the narrator teases us with a glimpse of another, more truly seductive influence. Behind the elaborate realism of The Wars hides the beguiling shape of myth and legend—the dragon that lurks in the fog.
Northrop Frye finds the essential principles of story-telling in mythology; those structural principles are "displaced" from mythology to literature. What kind of displaced mythology would we expect to find in Findley's novel? The Wars is a work of irony; in it we see the attempt, as Frye says in Anatomy of Criticism, "to give form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized existence." He goes...
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[The protagonist of Pound's modernist poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"] is the main character—initially, at least—in Timothy Findley's new novel, Famous Last Words. Immediately, one recognizes it as a brilliant idea that sparks a variety of possibilities in the reader's imagination. Findley has re-invented Mauberley for his own purposes, making him a younger man than Pound's, American, and a novelist. But any artist—according to Brecht, anyway—has the right to steal another man's work, provided he transforms it in the process. And it's in that transformation that the roots of our initial excitement grow. Pound's Mauberley was a symptom of a world that had apparently been wiped out by the First World War. Findley revives him and uses him to examine the way in which that old world of class and style had not been eliminated after all, but went on clinging to its power with increasing avidity for another 20 years or more. (Even now, has its grip been broken?) Naturally enough, Findley's Mauberley, like Pound, is drawn to fascism, but a fascism attenuated and sweetened by the desire to reconcile itself to the pretences and subtleties of an older aristocratic tradition. The Duke of Windsor for Führer?!
The concept is a fine one. It affords Findley the freedom to move easily between the old hypocrisies and the new barbarism that was replacing them in the 1930s. In the process there's a lovely, wicked irony: that Pound's alter ego,...
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Ezra Pound in his poem sequence "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" claimed that "The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, / Something for the modern stage." With benefit of a hindsight denied to Pound, Timothy Findley in Famous Last Words takes up the challenge in a "prose cinema" of dazzling brilliance. Like his earlier novel The Wars, the story revolves around a man trapped in wartime events. Transforming Pound's poetic persona Hugh Mauberley into a plausible fictional character, Findley probes the meaning of history with such insight and skill that Famous Last Words becomes a leap forward in his work….
Through his uncanny descriptive powers, Findley moves outward from a base of facts to convey an atmosphere in which the "porcelain revery" of Pound's Mauberley poems is finally shattered as the civilized world cracks apart. (p. 53)
In a novel of wider scope than anything he has yet attempted, Findley uses Mauberley to demonstrate that all it takes for evil to triumph is that men of conscience stand silent. Mauberley, like all men, must resist the evil he sees and feels not only around him but inside him….
Although Famous Last Words is based on well-documented events gleaned from a range of sources—Frances Donaldson's Edward VIII, Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, and James Pope-Hennessey's Queen Mary, among others—fact ultimately rallies to the...
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