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."