Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
Timothy Irving Frederick Findley became one of the most prominent Canadian novelists of his generation. He was educated in Toronto, and in 1953 he worked at the first Stratford Shakespearean Festival, studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and received a contract as an actor with H. M. Tennant. After touring in Europe and in the United States until 1956 he worked for the next six years in various capacities in the Canadian theater and for Canadian television and radio. In 1962 he decided to devote himself primarily to his writing, an interest he first pursued seriously in off-hours while on tour with H. M. Tennant.
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In 1967 Findley published his first novel, The Last of the Crazy People. The work concerns eleven-year-old Hooker Winslow’s attempt to understand the very debilitating psychological problems that afflict the other members of his well-to-do Canadian family and that isolate him emotionally from them. Driven to madness himself over the course of a long, particularly hot summer, he determines that the most merciful thing he can do for his family is to shoot them dead. Reviewers generally responded enthusiastically, viewing the novel as a sort of Canadian adaptation of the Southern gothic tradition represented in the works of writers such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers.
Findley’s second novel, The Butterfly Plague, was less enthusiastically received, partly because its use of symbolism seemed heavy-handed. The title refers to a plague of monarch butterflies that is the most central of many sharply imaged phenomena providing a linkage between the narrow story of a Southern California family cursed with hemophilia and the broader backdrop of pre-World War II tensions in Europe in 1938. The novel nevertheless exhibits the same techniques—including multiple narrative voices, cinematic episodes, and incorporation of historical figures and events—that mark Findley’s more successful subsequent novels.
In the early 1970’s Findley wrote many scripts for Canadian television and radio dramas. His radio play The Journey won the Armstrong Award in 1971, and he received similar awards for the teleplays The National Dream in 1974 and Dieppe 1942 in 1979, both written in collaboration with William Whitehead. In 1977 Findley’s stage play Can You See Me Yet? was published after a successful production at the National Arts Center in Ottawa.
That year Findley also published his third novel, The Wars, the story of a young Canadian officer who is driven to assert his sense of values through a “criminally insane” act on the Ypres battlefield of World War I. Praised internationally for its spare narration, its understatement of emotional strain, and its graphic, microcosmic depiction of pervasive horrors, The Wars received the Governor General’s Award for fiction and the City of Toronto Book Award. It has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (1929, 1968; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929, 1969), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), and Heinrich Böll’s Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa (1950; Traveller, If You Come to Spa, 1956). Findley wrote the script for the film based on the novel, which was released in 1983; the novel has also been translated into almost a dozen European languages.
Findley’s fourth novel, Famous Last Words, was published to similar international acclaim. Presenting Hugh Selwyn Mauberley as a real historical figure, it moves from historical facts about the duke and the duchess of Windsor, Charles Lindbergh, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Count Galeazzo Ciano, Sir Harry Oakes, Ezra Pound, and other personages, to a fictionalized exploration of the relation between public celebrity, private desperation, and compromises with Fascism.
Findley’s later works include Not Wanted on the Voyage, a retreatment of the Noah’s Ark story, and two collections of short stories, Dinner Along the Amazon and Stones. The novel The Telling of Lies combines memories of internment in a Japanese prison camp on Java, a reunion of respectable families at a Maine hotel about to be razed to make room for condominiums, the murder of a very elderly, ruthless pharmaceuticals magnate, and a high-level conspiracy to conceal disastrous mind experiments.
Headhunter is a surreal narrative-within-narrative in which a spiritualist schizophrenic believes that Kurtz of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) has slipped out from the pages of the book she is reading and is at large as the chief of a Toronto mental hospital. The Piano Man’s Daughter extends Finley’s interest in depicting insanity and turn-of-the-century Canada in a multigenerational saga of illegitimacy, pyromania, and doom. The main character in Pilgrim is a patient in analytic psychologist Carl Jung’s Swiss clinic and also shares the eternal, gender-switching characteristics of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928). Spadework, Findley’s final novel, leaves his usual haunts for backstage intrigue at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival.
Findley’s work has received mixed critical attention. Many have categorized him as no more than an accomplished writer of best-sellers. Yet other critics have judged this to be a misreading of Findley’s intricate plots and as a failure to appreciate the deft subtleties of his characterizations and the sensitive complexities of his thematic concerns. More than anything else, Findley is concerned with depicting the uncertainties central to human experience—the ready threat to the individual in a pervasive acquiescence to violence, the inability to correlate the essence of memory with the record of history, and the inexplicable possibilities of beauty and of horror inherent in the practice of language.