Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11248
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 is, rather than to show what it means." Having defined "the aims of interpretation" and demonstrated its "validity," E. D. Hirsch reasons [in Validity in Interpretation] that "[u]nderstanding (and therefore interpretation, in the strict sense of the word) is both logically and psychologically prior to criticism." Interpretation is "the construction of textual meaning as such; it explicates … those meanings and only those meanings which the text explicitly or implicitly represents."
Conceding that "nothing in the nature of the text itself … requires the reader to set up the author's meaning as his normative ideal," and that the reader of any text may easily "construe meanings … different from the author's," Hirsch nevertheless believes—and he professes his "simple belief" in the sometimes over-zealous accents of an academic Savonarola—that "a text means what its author means" and that the "interpreter's job is to reconstruct a determinate actual meaning"—namely, the "verbal meaning" which the author "has willed to convey by a particular sequence of linguistic signs and which can be conveyed (shared) by means of those linguistic signs." Verbal meaning Hirsch defines as "the content of the author's intention … the author's verbal intention," a somewhat slippery definition compelling him to reticulate a casuistical net in order to keep what he's caught in his critical hold. To fulfill his proper function, the interpreter must be able to reconstruct "the author's subjective stance" (meaning "his disposition to engage in particular kinds of intentional acts"), must be able to describe the horizon which defines the author's intention as a whole (meaning the boundary which separates "meanings of which he was explicitly conscious" as he wrote from meanings of which he was only implicitly conscious. Hirsch rejects as a contradiction in terms meanings of which an author was unconscious).
That Hirsch should look with disfavour on a large number of current critics and critical schools is not surprising. His commendation of Frye is cautious; his condemnation of Barthes is peremptory. Barthes' expansive outlook on writer, text and reader is antithetical to Hirsch's straight and narrow view of the reader as reconstructor of the author's verbal intentions. The "goal of literary work," says Barthes in S/Z, "is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text…. This new operation is interpretation (in the Nietzschean sense of the word). To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it." The "text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds," and "the more plural the text, the less it is written before I read it…. If we want to remain attentive to the plural of a text … we must renounce structuring this text in large masses … no construction of the text: everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure."
Bloom, Sontag, Hirsch and Barthes can be taken to represent the cardinal points on the critical compass I shall carry with me on my expedition into the relatively unexplored territory of Timothy Findley's fictions. Findley himself would obviously acknowledge the validity of Hirsch's viewpoint, not only because he believes that art, in order to be art, must be invulnerable to misconstruction, but also because he admits that his "biggest problem" as a writer is the fear of not having made himself clear: "I'll write the same thing into a novel several times so that by the time I've got it said, I've said it eight different ways … I don't trust enough—either myself or the reader." One result of Findley's anxiety is that the critic coming fresh to his work will, almost inevitably, respond like Tzvetan Todorov who begins his essay on Artaud by wondering "if it is not superfluous to interpose an exegesis between [Artaud's] text and his reader," since "Artaud said what he 'meant' so well and so abundantly." If we agree with Todorov that a "docile commentary, whose limit is paraphrase, is scarcely justified with regard to a text [or texts] whose initial comprehension does [do] not raise excessive difficulties," then we must align ourselves with Susan Sontag and against interpretation. On the other hand, if, like Barthes, we want to remain "attentive to the plural of a text"—and attention is a key to, a crucial term in any attempt to understand (or interpret) Findley's work—we are bound to offer readings which were not necessarily a part of the author's conscious verbal intentions (explicit or implicit) as he wrote, and which (as Bloom explains) are likely to be misreadings or misinterpretations of the author's intentions, though not of the text as it stands (or is plurally constituted).
The plurality of Findley's texts, as in all texts, derives not only from the galaxy of verbal signifiers which "signifies ceaselessly and several times," and so creates the complexities of mythos, ethos, and dianoia (to borrow from Aristotle those terms Frye has proved so useful); the plurality derives equally from those aspects of the signifiers which (Sontag would say) appeal less to the intellect than to the senses: namely, melos (the element of sound analogous to the music in opera), opsis (the element of spectacle analogous to sets, costumes, lighting and the moulding of movement on stage in opera), and lexis (the element of texture, diction, or literary style which is analogous to the tessitura of a particular role in opera, or to the singing style—say bel canto as distinct from verismo or music-drama). The importance of sound, spectacle, and style to a full appreciation of Findley's fictions, whether they be scripts intended to be listened to on the radio, scripts intended to be seen on television, the movie-screen, or the theatre-stage, or whether they be the texts of short-stories and novels, cannot be overemphasized. His work compels 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. And the need to pay attention, together with the learning how and why we need to pay attention, is an important theme in all Findley's fictions.
When the curtain rises on the garden of the old Insane Asylum at Britton, Ontario—the setting of Findley's first stage-play, Can You See Me Yet?—the audience is forced to look and listen:
The garden is empty. The sound of a radio rises in the wings; someone is singing "Where or When," by Rodgers and Hart. Thwack! A large wooden croquet ball rolls across the stage. A dog barks off stage.
The first character to enter is Doberman, a patient who thinks he's a dog and, like man's best friend, is dumb (until the last minute of the play when he utters a single word twice and stops the central character from killing herself). The second entrance is Enid's. Hearing the dog barking off stage she says, "Yap-yap-yap. Morning, noon and night. Listen to 'im. YAP-YAP-YAP-YAP! Wouldn't you think he'd lose his voice?" (italics mine). Having commanded Doberman (and, by implication, the audience since it, like the dog, cannot speak) to listen, she says, "You shouldn't stare at the sun … That's how people go blind. Mark my words: blind as a bat" (italics mine). Edward and Clare enter and sit down to play cards. Instantly, Enid interrupts: "Stop! I want attention!" The men ignore her. In the distance, "the sound of a fire engine is heard approaching." Enid shouts, "THE SKY IS FALLING!" Edward tells Clare to "Pay no attention," but Enid persists: "Listen to me. Listen—there's something terrible happening." Other patients join the group; a scene breaks out and their nurse, Alma, enters, trying to calm things down by promising a surprise. "Watch out!" Franklin exclaims. "Miss Alma is going to surprise us" (italics mine). At which point Enid resumes her bid for attention, screaming "FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" Alma strikes her. Moments later, Annie enters and announces that something has happened, down by the gate: a dog has been killed. Enid says, "I told you! I warned you! But—oh, no, no. No one listened."
Long before the significantly named central character enters at the beginning of Scene Two, Findley has already made his point. He has made us look at an empty stage, listen to various sound effects, and to Enid's imitating a yapping dog and then shouting. We have heard the repeated imperatives; seen a number of characters behaving oddly and, presumably, tried to figure them out, just as we have tried to follow the non-sequential conversation of the madhouse inmates. Finally, we have been given the explicit warning, "I told you!… But … no one listened." The fact that Findley withholds Cassandra's name for five or more minutes after she first appears makes its ultimate revelation even more pointed. If we have been listening to what Enid tells us, marking her words, watching out, taking her warning seriously, then we shall certainly not need to have the significance of Cassandra's name spelled out for us.
Edward, who plays Cassandra's father in the psychodrama she acts out with the other inmates, and with Alma, says to his daughter, "You haven't changed, Cassandra. Still a question. Still a riddle." The question she embodies is the same as the play's title, a question she asks three times in the course of the drama's fifteen scenes. It is a question Findley poses in all his fictions, from "About Effie" to The Wars. It must, therefore, be crucial. So is the riddle. Like the play, which unfolds on two levels (Cassandra's recognition and acceptance of and by her fellow inmates; the psychodrama in which she re-enacts her family relationships from childhood on), the riddle is twofold: Who is the "me" of the play's title-question? or, from the subjective view-point compelled by the psychodrama, Who am I? And, Is anyone there to see me? or, from the personal point of view, Who is there to see me? Both question and riddle clearly relate to a central concern in Findley's work: Does anyone care enough to pay me any attention? And if so, Who cares enough? And, Do they care enough to see me and accept me as I am?
Ontological insecurity—together with the sometimes desperate search for a lovable and therefore acceptable identity—is a constant feature in the variable worlds of Findley fictions. In his first short-story, "About Effie," the insecurity of the young narrator, Neil Cable, is displaced by his acute anxiety about his ability to make the reader identify Effie if and when he meets her:
I don't know how to begin about Effie, but I've got to because I think you ought to know about her. Maybe you'll meet her one day, and then you'll be glad I told you all this. If I didn't, then maybe you wouldn't know what to do.
The "main thing," Neil continues, "is to watch out for her." If the reader meets an Effie and the name is uncommon), "take a good look because it might be her." She lacks easily identifiable physical characteristics, "but the way you'll know her is this: she'll look at you as if she thought you were someone she was waiting for, and it will probably scare you." (Waiting, which creates suspense and heightens anxiety, is another recurrent feature of Findley's fictional world.) The best way to "introduce" Effie so as we shall not forget her is obviously to tell her story; but even when he's finished telling it, Neil is still uncertain about his achievement. "So you can see what I mean. It still worries me. And that's why I want you to be sure—to be sure—to recognize her when you see her."
Similarly, in his second-written story, "Harper's Bazaar," the insecurity is again displaced from the main character, eight-year-old Harper Dewey, to his beautiful, alcoholic mother whom he comes to identify with her jewels, which she sells for liquor, and whom he tries to pin into place forever by selling liquor-laced lemonade in order to make enough money to replace his mother's jewellery. He has been told in a letter from his father (killed in World War II) that "his 'Duty' [is] to obey his mother and always 'to love her more dearly than all the earth, dearer still than your own dear life.'" But she dies anyway, even though Harper runs away from home and spends the night in a tree "'to make my mother take attention.'" Says Bertha Millroy, the Dewey's maid, "'I guess we just didn't pray enough…. We went and lost her, Harper…. We went and lost her to the Lord.'" Gradually overwhelmed by "the deep quiet of loneliness," "the loneliness of an adult, the loneliness defined by remembrance," Harper is confronted by
That was all he could grasp. Nothing. Everything was over—everyone went away—and finally you went away yourself.
"Nothing, as experience," according to R. D. Laing [in his The Politics of Experience & The Bird of Paradise], "arises as an absence of someone or something. No friends, no relationships, no pleasure, no meaning in life…. The list is, in principle, endless. Take anything and imagine its absence." Laing distinguishes very carefully between "the absence of relationships, and the experience of every relationship as an absence": the difference is that "between loneliness and a perpetual solitude, between provisional hope or hopelessness and a permanent state of despair." He goes on to point out that, in a world without meanings, values, sources of sustenance or help, "man, as creator, must invent, conjure up meanings and values, sustenance and succour out of nothing." But the fate of the creator, says Laing, "after being ignored, neglected, despised, is … to be discovered by the non-creative."
There are sudden, apparently inexplicable suicides that must be understood as the dawn of a hope so horrible and harrowing that it is unendurable.
In The Last of the Crazy People, as the title suggests, Findley moves closer than in the two preceding stories to the characters and setting of Can You See Me Yet? What "pleases me most about my work as a novelist," Findley has stated in the Gibson interview, "is my own awareness of having that special twisted view which is a dependence on the insane people to do sane things. The ultimate sanity comes from the insane, I believe. Now—be careful! What I mean is—we call the sane insane.' In fiction you have to heighten this, treat it symbolically." In Crazy People, Findley moves closer to his own confrontation with the kind of nothingness that Harper Dewey glimpses, that R. D. Laing sees as a symptom of ontological insecurity, and that Hooker Winslow, eleven-year-old protagonist of Findley's first novel, faces in the novel's Prologue and obliterates in its Epilogue.
The structure of this first novel is clearly significant: from the Prologue to the Epilogue, Hooker is waiting, alone—"a perpetual solitude." The intervening chapters form a single, extended flashback, a "loneliness defined by remembrance." The dawn described in the Prologue does what Findley says fiction must do; it heightens, by symbolizing, "the dawn of a hope so horrible … that it is unendurable." The light (and maybe what "we" call sanity) begins to break in Hooker's mind when he hears his aunt talking to his father about his brother, Gilbert: "'They're going to hold a shotgun over your son, and you just sit there!'" This prompts Hooker to steal the pistol that belonged to John Harris (killed in World War I): "When Gilbert needed a gun, it would be there … for him to use when he got in trouble. Then Gilbert would know that he had thought of him kindly." Gilbert, however, commits suicide (a "sudden, apparently inexplicable" suicide), and Hooker, attending the inquest, hears the verdict: "Death by his own hand"—presumably "while of unsound mind." His father is mortally shamed by Gilbert's suicide. "'One of us has killed himself…. It's like having a bloody gun at your head all the time.'" By which point in the novel, Hooker has already seen the light (his mother is a psychopathic recluse; his father is figuratively impotent; his aunt lives in the past; his brother is mentally handicapped; and Hooker suspects that he himself is homosexual): "'I think that we are crazy people,' said Hooker. 'Like those crazies in the asylum. We have a crazy mother, don't we?… It's like a whole list of crazy people, and we're the last of them.'" His brother's suicide is all the confirmation he needs. He holes up in the loft of the stable (which is where we leave him waiting in the Prologue): "Somehow, in the stable, they would have to come to him" (italics mine). His family will have to search for Hooker. When they do, in the Epilogue, he guns them down and is committed to an insane asylum. Iris, the Winslow's maid and Hooker's closest companion, is told it's best to think of him dead—another of those "sudden, apparently inexplicable suicides that must be understood as the dawn of a hope so horrible … it is unendurable." As Findley explained to Gibson, with reference to a story he heard of a child who killed one of his parents, his sister and someone else staying in the house: "I was thunderstruck by what I considered the beauty … of his statement when someone … said to him: Can you tell me why you did it? He said, Because I loved them so. And for me, that's all he needed to say."
Any attempt to reconstruct Findley's "subjective stance" in relation to a number of given texts returns the attentive reader to his preoccupation with loneliness. As a child, he confesses to [Donald] Cameron [Conversations with Canadian Novelists],
I had no interest in other children, maybe because I was often sick and had no tie with what other kids were doing…. I spent a lot of time with the maid, or just plain by myself, so it got that I sort of feared other kids…. Nothing but surface communication. I was sent to boarding school during the worst part of the war … my brother got sick … I was left there all by myself and my mother could hardly ever come to see me. Dad was at war and I just felt—abandoned.
But the loneliness was not confined to his childhood. Asked by Gibson if he enjoys writing, Findley replied that he loves it but hates "all the other stuff that goes with it," meaning loneliness. Though he alludes to Mann's Death in Venice because it shows that loneliness has its positive side, Findley concludes that "loneliness perverts":
I wouldn't attempt to say anything more than loneliness perverts, and this is very disturbing, very upsetting and you have to go through that to be a writer … the way you live very often cuts you off from people that you shouldn't be cut off from…. You're intellectually lonely: no one—hardly anyone "understands" you, because your whole life—maybe I should say your whole existence is an intensified searching—not for your own identity—but for your work's identity.
Like Harper Dewey and Hooker Winslow, James Reid Taylor, principal character in The Paper People, a film-script written for television in 1967, has an unhappy childhood, was "a lonely boy" born about "eight friends behind everyone else." Taylor, a contemporary artist who expresses "with increasing violence … his distaste for contemporary life," is the subject of a TV documentary being researched and written by Janet Webb, a fictional TV producer. Janet's "filmic inquiry"—the containing subject of The Paper People—is a quest for the identity of Jamie Taylor as revealed in his work: his "work's identity." Jamie's current mode is to make life-size and lifelike models of his friends out of papier-maché, and then to bum them ritualistically, reducing both his art and his paper people "to ashes—the ultimate symbol of emptiness." Janet, in the course of compiling her documentary, uncovers important aspects of Taylor's life he would prefer to keep secret but which she insists on including. He reacts by calling her a killer: "I knew you were a killer the moment I laid eyes on those cold, cold hips of yours." Like Hooker, and "[l]ike to the Egyptian thief at point of death," both Jamie and Janet "kill" what they love. The search for and assertion of identity—even the work's identity—results in its extermination: self-consciousness paralyses the self. The quester is left feeling unattended to in innominate loneliness; or, if the critic is quester, he is left to face his own failure and the fact that, as Wordsworth warns, "We murder to dissect."
Not coincidentally, one of the major sequences (entitled "BANG-BANG") in The Paper People includes a discussion of the sniper in the tower on the University of Texas campus who shot fifteen and wounded thirty other people. Janet asks why anyone must be killed, "Why kill at all?" "To make a statement," answers one of Jamie's friends, "… what other new way is there to express something?"
TONYA: You're setting up killers as artists.
MARCO: Or artists as killers …
WILFRID: … Suicide and assassination are the new art forms….
MARCO: … All you have to do is look at In Cold Blood.
HAROLD: (DREAMILY) Yes,—and those nurses in Chicago,—and Austin,—and Dallas! They're all sort of pointless, unless the point is to say something.
JAMIE: With style.
When Janet objects, reminding them that human lives are at issue here, Marco, who has seen one of Janet's documentaries in which she exposes a distinguished neuro-surgeon as an alcoholic, says, "I've seen you assassinate in your quiet lady-like way!" Suicide, homicide and/or assassination, real or figurative, are not uncommon events in Findley's fictional world over which hangs the "allure of violence" which is also seen to hang in the air over Cheeverland, his satirical model of the United States. After he has seen Lee Harvey Oswald shot, on television, Hooker asks Gilbert what "assassinate" means. "'Usually it's killing for a bigger reason than plain ordinary murder,'" Gilbert explains. "'Like Kennedy and Abe Lincoln and the Archduke Ferdinand…. [T]hey decided … if they killed the Archduke, that would make something happen. Cause attention and division.'" James Reid Taylor burns his paper people in public; the "fires are what draw public attention to him and, thus, Janet's interest in putting his world on film."
Of the many images people use to describe "ways in which identity is threatened"—being buried, drowned, dragged down into quicksand—that which "recurs repeatedly" (according to Laing) is fire:
Fire may be the uncertain flickering of the individual's own inner aliveness. It may be a destructive alien power which will devastate him. Some psychotics say in the acute phase that they are on fire, that their bodies are being burned up. A patient describes himself as cold and dry. Yet he dreads any warmth or wet. He will be engulfed by the fire or the water, and either way be destroyed.
This last sentence is immediately relevant to Robert Ross in The Wars, who first fears death by drowning and finally dies as a result of injuries sustained in fire; but Laing's observation illuminates more generally the recurrence of fire as event, image and symbol in Findley's fictions.
Gilbert Winslow slams his Jaguar into a tree and is instantly immolated: "Gilbert, on fire, lay back like Peter crucified, hooked by his feet to the cross of the motor car, his arms spread out in a hopeless gesture." The first sequence in The Paper People (described entirely in terms of visuals without any dialogue) is a junkyard in which James Reid Taylor's papier-maché doll of Tonya is being burned; fire is what draws the public's attention to his work; with fire he reduces both art and life to ashes, "the ultimate symbol of emptiness"—of nothingness. For Ruth Damorosch, in The Butterfly Plague, 1938 "had been a year of fires. Real fires, imaginary fires, symbolic fires. All burning—all eating—most of them conjuring death." The first fire is a small fire on Topanga Beach, where she lives. By the time she finds it, it is only embers: "There was nothing sinister in the fire at all." But she removes from the ashes "a small piece of blue material" which turns out to be a memento mori, the remains of a bathing suit belonging to a girl whose naked body is later washed ashore: the first of many deaths, violent and pacific, in Findley's second novel. The second fire provides the climax and conclusion to the novel's first book: the fire in Alvarez Canyon, due north of Santa Monica, a tourist beauty-spot "known around the globe," and proclaimed "'Paradise'" by the visiting public. Approximately forty acres in area, Alvarez Canyon is a cunning mixture of natural and artificial: "In order to preserve the atmosphere of Paradise in all weathers, some portions of Alvarez were quite unreal. The plants in these places were made of specially treated fabrics and rubber. Thus when elsewhere the acacia leaves were falling they did not fall down in Alvarez." But Paradise is lost at the end of Book One, totally destroyed by fire: "The sanctuary was to become a charnel house." Standing outside the gates of Paradise—their poses a "[s]tillness in the holocaust"—Ruth, her mother, father, brother, and several other characters, turn back to watch the terror, panic and suffering of all the animals trapped inside the sanctuary, "fleeing mindlessly in concerted directions, not knowing what death was, but smelling death—not knowing what fire was, but being burned. Some turned back into the furnace. Some others crept into the flaming trees. Some attempted impossible flight into the sky":
Naomi said, "They will all die."
And Ruth said. "Pay attention."…
"Pay attention. Listen. Watch. Attention….
In the ghettos of Paradise, four thousand creatures had perished.
Against a wall….
Surely someone was there to see it and to pay attention.
Clearly, the fire in Alvarez Canyon is proleptic; in its flames Findley prefigures the fate of the Jews in the German crematoria (the dream of a pure and perfect Aryan race and the evils of Naziism being, of course, a central subject in this novel). Near the end of The Butterfly Plague, Ruth sets fire to her dead brother's house wanting to raze to the ground the softly seductive, sweetly dangerous dreams of impossible perfection her brother's life has housed. And the final chronicle in this novel composed of seventeen separate chronicles is entitled "The Fire Chronicle." "We know that history repeats itself." In September of 1968, Ruth's orphaned daughter, Lisa, meets the son of another character on Topanga Beach. They smell smoke. "'Fire is dangerous,'" says Lisa. They go to look for it. "This makes an interesting conclusion," says the narrator. "As always. And thus, this chronicle is over—the last of the chronicles of the Butterfly Plague. The first of the Fire Plague. And …" [Findley's ellipsis]. Though the novel stops after one more sentence (which tells that Lisa and the boy don't find the fire), the ellipsis after the additive conjunction invites the reader to anticipate another story chronicling the Fire Plague, which is precisely what Findley's third novel is and does. But between The Butterfly Plague and The Wars comes the long short-story, "Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye," which has little directly to do with fire until the very last sentence.
Two epigraphs precede "Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye," one from John Cheever's Bullet Park (in response to which this story was written) and another from Nicholas Fagan's Essays and Conversations. Fagan suggests that Cheever's Fictional world is so true-to-life and all-absorbing that people have started forsaking New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in order to "take up residence inside his books … they've foundered in this place called Cheeverland." Findley's story (which cannot be summarized because it has no plot) creates a Lilliputian model of Cheeverland located somewhere on Long Island, with a view of the Sound and the sight of William F. Buckley Junior's home on the far shore. The cast of characters is extensive, including another in the significant series of Findley maids, and a young man "innocent of all experience save imagination…. Call him Ishmael…. He has come a long way to Cheeverland, from Toronto." He has come to the house of Arthur and Alicia Anderson ("on their way up in the world of television") because they want to turn his novel, Blackwater Falls, into a "'Film of the Week' (not the same as a FILM)." Ishmael stays in the maid's old room. "After the events in Memphis [in 1968] a meeting was held [of the blacks in Cheeverland regarding those who worked as live-in servants in white folks' houses] and the decision was made to move out. It was one thing to work there and to eat there, but quite another to sleep there, and so their bedrooms … were abandoned." Clyde, lover of Rosetta, the Anderson maid, is a leader of "this movement" among the blacks, and he persuades Rosetta to carry a gun. On Saturday morning, his second day in Cheeverland, Ishmael wakes and hears a "distant narrative of fire and lemonade": Rosetta is telling Alicia about "a fire in the night, downtown, and even now the soldiers and the fireman are sifting through the ashes for the victims." Apart from references to Professor Dinstitch, another character who, as a younger man, helped to invent the atomic bomb, Findley lets fire drop until the final sentence which reads: "On Monday Rosetta comes up coatless in the morning, but the fires have moved up before her and these pages already bum." The revolution, it seems, has already started, and the illusory pseudo-liberal world of Cheeverland browns and crumbles in the reader's hands. Feeling the heat, he drops it, watching it (Findley's art, and life itself) reduced to ashes, ultimate symbol of nothingness.
The Wars begins and ends with fire (even though it is also full of images of water, earth and air. a fact to which the inscription on Robert Ross's gravestone alerts readers):
Robert Ross comes riding straight towards the camera. His hat has fallen off. His hands are knotted to the reins. They bleed. The horse is black and wet and falling. Robert's lips are parted. He leans along the horse's neck. His eyes are blank. There is mud on his cheeks and forehead and his uniform is burning—long, bright tails of flame are streaming out behind him. He leaps through the memory without a sound. The archivist sighs. Her eyes are lowered above some book. There is a strand of hair in her mouth. She brushes it aside and turns the page. You lay the fiery image, back in your mind and let it rest. You know it will obtrude again and again until you find its meaning—here.
The "fiery image" of Robert burning on horseback, "tails of flame … streaming out behind him," is carefully paralleled by a watery image of Robert, after he has nearly drowned, swimming on horseback, "almost submerged with his clothes flowing back…. Pegasus." Both images are simultaneously elemental and mythical; and attention is drawn, directly or indirectly, to both aspects of both images; directly, in the single-word sentence "Pegasus"; indirectly, with reference to the "fiery image" of Robert, which has to be seen in its chronological context at the end of the novel, the four final sections of Part Five beginning, "Here is where the mythology is muddled." What is important, quite apart from what these images signify in relation to the plot (mythos), to Robert's character (ethos), and to the thematic content of the novel (dianoia), is the fact that in both cases the narrator compels the reader to look at the image (opsis), and to hear how the image sounds (melos), and carefully to mark his words (lexis). From first to last, the unspecified narrator of The Wars makes his presence felt, addressing the reader, directing the reader's attention, compelling him to mark the narrator's words in a particular way (one may even wonder, at moments, if the unspecified narrator is not a personification of Findley's anxiety about being misconstrued, about not making himself clear, about trusting—or not trusting—the reader).
"You lay the fiery image back in your mind and let it rest. You know it will obtrude again and again until you find its meaning—here." The deictics are tricky since we cannot be sure if the "you" is really reflexive—the narrator as fictional researcher hypothesizing someone engaged in the same process as himself—or whether he is addressing the reader directly and casting him in a role parallel to the narrator's own. Similarly, the adverb "here" may refer specifically to an imaginary photograph (since, so far as we know, no photographer is present to take pictures when Robert breaks out of the fired barn) which the narrator is describing; or, if the "you" is addressed to the reader, "here" could mean "in this image, in this passage of this novel"—or "in this image, in its proper context in this novel." The shades of difference in meaning are complementary rather than contradictory. Clearly, the attentive reader now knows that whatever "meaning" (the "author's verbal intention") he is to take from the novel inheres in this "fiery image"—even though the reader must remain attentive to the plurality of the text, aware that everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, that the "fiery image" is only one of the several ways in which the same story is told, simultaneously and sequentially; and is itself a microcosm of the single story which is projected in other elements and mythoi, severally and at the same time.
When Robert tries to save the horses at the end of The Wars (an action which involves the killing of Captain Leather which, in turn, compels him to become a deserter, to shoot Private Cassles and, in some eyes, to become a renegade horse-thief) he fulfills the proper function of a soldier which he wrongly attributes to the unnamed soldier in the early scene in which Teddy Budge is called in to kill Rowena's rabbits after her death. When Robert sees Budge, it takes him "thirty seconds to emerge from his pain and to realize why Teddy Budge was there." Robert turns to the soldier and yells "something like: 'you bastard! Bastard! What are soldiers for?'" The young man's question obviously expects the answer, "To protect the defenceless," not "To kill." That answer is something Robert has to learn ("What he wanted was a model. Someone who could teach him, by example, how to kill"). Ironically, his action at the end of the novel repeats the unknown soldier's in the very attempt to do what the latter did not do: protect the defenceless (horses). Robert's final acts are, therefore, open to interpretation, both negative and positive. As the researcher-narrator discovers, when he interviews World War I veterans, and asks about Robert, "they look away." Others weep when he says "'Tell me about the horses.'" And yet others say "'that bastard!'" Marian Turner states simply: "'My opinion was—he was a hero … he did the thing that no one else would dare to think of doing.'" Juliet d'Orsey, who falls in love with Robert when she is only twelve, and who looks after him after he's wounded until he dies, asserts neither hero nor bastard. She says:
"So what it was we were denied [in the war] was to be ordinary. All our ordinary credos and expectations vanished. Vanished. There was so much death. No one can imagine. These were not accidents—or the quiet, expected deaths of the old. These were murders. By the thousands. All your friends were … murdered."
The death of Captain Leather is, then, no different from that of Clive d'Orsey, died July 1st, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme; or of Rodwell who walks out into No Man's Land and blows his brains out; or of Clifford Purchas, shot in the back as a deserter; or of the friendly German sniper whom Robert shoots in a moment of panic; or of Robert himself who dies of wounds sustained while performing what he has thought the duty of a soldier ought to be.
In the same way, the "fiery image" is open to both positive and negative interpretations. For the disinterested reader of fiction, it is striking evidence of Findley's imagination; for those who enjoy projecting themselves into fictional worlds, the "fiery image" is a beautiful, Phoenix-like metaphor for the spirit of self-sacrifice embodied in Robert (and all those like him); and for the hope of a whole generation that believed it was fighting the war to end all wars, a hope reduced to ashes in the prolonged and senseless front-line slaughter but resurrected repeatedly in the human heart because it is human. For those whose view of human nature is less optimistic (and Findley's view, as revealed in interviews if not in fictions, inclines to be less optimistic), the "fiery image" may well suggest what Laing sees as the recurring image for the threatened identity of the psychotic in the acute stage. This negative interpretation is certainly supported by other aspects of the text, quite apart from the fact that, just before he shoots Leather, Robert's anger rises to such a pitch that he fears he is "going over into madness"; and Major Mickle, responsible for arresting Robert, decides that he is "plainly … dealing with a man gone mad." Juliet d'Orsey links Robert with Eugene Taffler and Jamie Villiers: all three become the lover of Barbara d'Orsey who "'had a taste for heroes and athletes. She enjoyed the spectacle of winning.'" Ironically, Taffler, Villiers and Robert are all losers; all suffer extensive injuries in battle. Taffler, the David-like stone-thrower, loses both his arms and tries to kill himself in hospital. Jamie, like Robert, dies of his bums. Robert first sees Barbara when, with Taffler on her arm, she visits Villiers in the hospital where Robert is keeping vigil at Harris's bedside. The visit is brief.
When they'd gone Robert could feel the man in bandages [Villiers] 'screaming' and the sensation of this silent agony at the other end of the room was so strong that Robert had to go and get one of the nurses…. She told him the man had been trapped in a fire and his vocal cords destroyed when he'd swallowed the flames.
Later, Juliet comments on her sister's visit to Villiers:
"Her silence in Jamie's presence. Was it cruel? Of course it was. Not to let him hear her voice. Nothing was left of him, you know. Nothing but nerves and pain and his mind. No voice—no flesh. Nothing. Just his self. Later, as you'll see, this forms a sort of pattern … well—a very definite pattern." [Findley's ellipsis]
(Here, again, the narrator through Juliet directs reader-attention, compelling us to mark these words in a particular way: to look for a specific pattern.) Robert, like Villiers, is reduced to nothing, to nerve, pain, mind—his self, essenced in two words "'Not yet'": "according to the medical testimony—there was virtually no hope that he would ever walk or see or be capable of judgement again." The narrator describes another photo of him, "taken about a year before his death. He wears a close-fitting cap rather like a toque—pulled down over his ears. He has no eyebrows—his nose is disfigured and bent and his face is a mass of scar tissue…. Robert is looking directly at the camera."
"Robert comes riding straight towards the camera": here, near the beginning of the book, the circle is opened. By the end, "Robert is looking directly at the camera": here the circle is almost closed. "'These are the circles—all drawing inward to the thing Robert did.'" Robert died, his life
obscured by violence. Lawrence was hurled against a wall—Scott entombed in ice and wind—Mallory blasted on the face of Everest. Lost. We're told Euripides was killed by dogs—and this is all we know. The flesh was torn and scattered—eaten. Ross was consumed by fire. These are like statements: 'pay attention!' [First two italics mine.]
The narrator instructs the reader how to pay attention: "You begin at the archives with photographs. Robert and Rowena…. Boxes and boxes of snapshots and portraits; maps and letters; cablegrams and clippings from the papers. All you have to do is sign them out and carry them across the room … a whole age lies in fragments underneath the lamps. The war to end all wars…. You hold your breath." You look at the images and listen to the narrator. A series of pictures of 1915: the "year itself looks sepia and soiled." Then comes April, Ypres and six thousand dead. "This is where the pictures alter—fill up with soldiers—horses—wagons. Everyone is waving either at the soldiers or the cameras. More and more people want to be seen … want to be remembered." Troops marching down Yonge Street, Sir Sam Hughes taking the salute. Then the "fiery image" of Robert (imagined, in italics); then a series of family photographs: "Thomas Ross and Family … Rowena … Mother and Miss Davenport … Meg—a Patriotic Pony … Peggy Ross with Clinton Brown." A picture of the ocean, taken on a trip to England, with a small white dot which is "clearly … an iceberg" (conjuring thoughts of 1912 and that archetypal Canadian image, the Titanic).
Two more photos, one early, one late, and the circle is completed. The early one was obviously taken at the end of Robert's training, before he embarked for England:
Robert Raymond Ross—Second Lieutenant, C.F.A.
He is wearing his uniform. Nothing yet is broken down….
Dead men are serious—that's what this photograph is striving to say. Survival is precluded. Death is romantic—got from silent images. I lived—was young—and died. But not real death, of course, because I'm standing here alive with all these lights that shine so brightly in my eyes…. He died for King and Country—fighting the war to end all wars.
5 × 9 and framed in silver.
The last picture was taken even earlier and returns us to the beginning: "begin at the archives with photographs. Robert and Rowena":
The archivist closes her book…. It is time to tell us all to go…. You begin to arrange your research in bundles—letters—photos—telegrams. This is the last thing you see before you put on your overcoat:
Robert and Rowena with Meg: Rowena seated astride the pony—Robert holding her in place. On the back is written, 'Look! You can see our breath.' And you can.
Just as early and late are transposed (the last thing you see is what you began with), so are life and death (Robert standing there alive in his uniform long after he has died); but Robert's death is "not real" because, of course, his life is only imagined (as a novel by Findley). What never really lived can never really die. He exists in a continuous fictional present and only in a series of images—some fiery, some watery, some earthy (Robert in the whore-house, in the dugout), some airy: "'Look! You can see our breath.'" And the attentive reader can, if he uses his imagination (Pegasus); if he remains attentive to the text's plurality, has marked the narrator's words with care, he will also understand that the visible breath of Robert and Rowena, which makes them appear so lifelike, is simultaneously an image of death. "'Be quiet,'" says Robert to his men, trapped in the crater under the eye of the German sniper, "and as he said it, he saw in front of them the dreadful phenomenon that could give them all away. His breath." "'Birth I can give you—but life I cannot,'" his mother tells Robert just before he joins up. "'I can't keep anyone alive. Not any more.'… This was the last time they breathed in one another's presence." "Rowena and his father and his mother and the whole of his past life—birth and death and childhood. He could breathe them in and breathe them out."
Harris, dying of pneumonia, "said the strangest things…. Strange and provocative. Robert didn't know, sometimes, what to do with Harris's sentences: where to fit them in his mind, or how to use them." Having drawn attention to Harris's strange sentences, the narrator makes the reader listen more carefully:
'Then I'd slide. Like a seal. Out of the air and into the water. Out of my world and into theirs. And I'd stay there hours. Or so it seemed. I'd think: I never have to breathe again. I've changed. It changes you.'… And in his sleep his hands would move … as if he dreamt of swimming—or of 'breathing' in the other element…. 'In that place—there—in that element—somehow I was safe—even from choking…. But once I'd landed on the shore … I nearly died. In the air … in the air …
Lying in his bunk, in the dugout, listening to his batman's harsh breathing, Robert is reminded of Harris,"—and that was the last thing he needed reminding of" (since Harris has died). "All he wanted was a dream. Escape…. Dreams and distance are the same. If he could run away … Like Longboat" [Findley's ellipsis]. Longboat, the Indian marathon runner, is Robert's childhood hero, and he himself is really "a long distance runner." During training at Lethbridge, Robert runs every night by himself. Running, he loses all sense of time. "There was nothing to be won but distance." "Distance was safety. Space was asylum."
From the Prologue until the antepenultimate section of the novel, Robert is on the run (just as Hooker is waiting), trying to put a safe space between himself (his self) and all that threatens destruction. Dreaming of distance, he runs toward asylum; but, like Cassandra's, in the final scene of Can You See Me Yet?, Robert's airy dream is dashed or drowned in the mud, destroyed by fire:
Brothers and sisters: there should be a place to go for safety: asylum, and there's not. There is no safety—none for love, or for the mind…. I've failed. I couldn't make a place for safety. I should be asylum, and I'm not…. Why can't I help? Why can't I get beyond the fire?… The world is ending all around us, and we need each other now. And yet there is no sanctuary. Nowhere. None. In all the world. In all the width and breadth and depth of the human heart—where there is room for sanctuary—there is none. I know, because there is none in mine.
In order to know what nothingness is, says Laing, take anything—distance, safety, sanctuary, asylum—and imagine its absence. Even the old asylum at Britton offers no sanctuary. As Alma informs us, in September of 1939 (ominous and symbolic date), it "was destroyed by fire. Cassandra Wakelin died. But … she did not die alone. As she had lived." Equally ironic is the fact that, when Robert, near the end of the book, goes to the Asile Desolé, where mad Van Gogh was once an inmate and where, in the war, the officers are allowed to take a bath, he is raped by a gang of men he assumes are "crazies" but who turn out to be "his fellow soldiers."
Cassandra cries out that she cannot get beyond the fire. Earlier in the play, like a psychotic in the acute phase, she has declared "I am fire." At Verdun, the Germans used a new weapon, the flame-thrower: "Men … carrying tanks of fire on their backs … spread the fire with hoses. Water burned and snow went up in smoke. Nothing remained." A silent image, Robert leaps through the memory as a human torch on horseback. Beyond the fire, he is nothing. He is made one with the elements (like the tormented Empedocles whose final leap takes him under the volcano); but the elements themselves, in the infernal world of the wars, suffer unnatural changes and become one: the air is "filled with a fine, grey powder" that turns into mud; men and horses "drowned in mud"; the only water lies "out in the marsh beyond the flaming hedgerows"; gasoline spreads "through the town in rivers of fire."
Fire storms raged along the front. Men were exploded where they stood—blown apart by the combustion…. Wells and springs of water were plugged and stopped by the bodies of men … who had gone there for safety. The storms might last for hours—until the clay was baked and the earth was seared and sealed with fire.
Fire, asserts Gas ton Bachelard, is "a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything"—and everything; "it is one of the principles of universal explanation." Certainly, a reading of The Psychoanalysis of Fire provides a most provocative commentary not only on the "fiery image" in The Wars, but also on the phenomenon of fire in all Findley's work. In addition to making the predictable examination of "Sexualized Fire"—"the connecting link for all symbols"—Bachelard comes in his "Conclusion" to identify fire with imagination which "works at the summit of the mind like a flame." "You lay the fiery image back in your mind … until you find its meaning—here" in the mind, in the imagination, that realm to which the winged-horse, Pegasus, transports us. And it is here, in the imagination—with its creative and destructive powers, its complex processes and seemingly simple productions, its instrumentality in enabling the individual to perceive and comprehend, or to distort and run away from, reality—that we confront the primary concern of Findley's imagination, just as (in the works of the greatest writers) narrative is the ultimate theme of narrative, and literature is the first (but not only) context in which to understand the nature of literature.
What Frye says of "the dislocations of narrative" in Tristram Shandy is equally true of those in The Wars: "they take our attention away from looking at the external situation"—i.e., the story—"to listening to the process of its coming into being in the author's mind"—i.e., the imaginative process or discourse. In other words, the almost continuous presence of the narrator in The Wars—even in Part Three in which the sections are dated and clocked, rather than simply numbered, so that we are made to feel the narrator was also an eyewitness to these events, documenting or logging them as they occurred—keeps pulling the reader's attention away from what Frye calls "the internal fiction" which is of "primary interest" in the fictional modes, and making him refocus on the external fiction, the relationship established by writer with reader, which "cuts across the story" and is of primary interest in thematic modes of literature. But Findley's "writer" or "narrator" demands a great deal from his relationship with the reader, commanding him to look and listen simultaneously: the story of Robert Ross is shown as a series of photographs or pictures (with which we can do nothing, if not look at them); but, at the same time, the narrator is busy telling us about the Archives, the archivist, his progress as a researcher, his methodology, his interviews with Marian Turner and his taping sessions with Juliet d'Orsey, all of which we must listen to.
Findley and his narrators are, in some ways, reminiscent of Woolf and at least one of her characters: Bernard in The Waves. (Allusions to Woolf appear in "Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye." In The Wars she appears as a character, a friend of Clive d'Orsey. Juliet records in her diary that "Mrs. Woolf is my idol.") Bernard, who distrusts "'neat designs of life,'" speculates on his problems as a would-be novelist: "'But if there are no stories, what end can there be, or what beginning? Life is not susceptible perhaps to the treatment we give it when we try to tell it.'" Findley's story, "Losers, Finders: Strangers at the Door," opens with what appears to be a lyric poem (and Woolf's fictions, in particular The Waves, have frequently been called "poems" or "lyrical novels"):
are only seen
and of screaming
is the same.
The second section continues: "2 … there are no beginnings, not even to stories. There are only places where you make an entrance … and either stay or turn and go away." The final section reads: "18 … nor are there endings. Even to stories. There are only places where you exit from another life. Or turn again and stay. Not knowing why" (Findley's ellipses).
Beginning his summing up in The Waves, Bernard says, "'in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story.'" But, tired of stories and neat designs of life, he looks for some new form of narrative "'more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then.'" What delights him is the confusion of cloud-formations, ever changing, always in motion:
"Of story, of design, I do not see a trace then.
But, meanwhile, while we eat let us turn over these scenes as children turn over the pages of a picture-book … and I will add, for your amusement, a comment in the margin."
Findley's fascination with stories told in the form of pictures (as in picture-books and films) is obvious. Much of his own story-telling has been done in the medium of television, and a great part of the TV script consists quite literally of visuals, instructions as to how a "scene" or sequence" should be shot, from what angle, what distance, what the individual "frame" (or picture) should include, what objects should be prominent, how the sequence should be separated from or attached to what follows, and so on. In fact, he won more recognition in Canada for his work on Whiteoaks of Jalna and The National Dream than he did for his first two novels. That The Paper People, one of his most important TV film-scripts, should be a TV film about the making of a TV film only intensifies by dramatizing Findley's profound interest in the pictorial modes of narrative. He has also written a film-script for the National Film Board, worked as a script-writer in Hollywood, and is currently engaged in translating The Wars into a film-script. The Butterfly Plague, set in Hollywood in the first three decades of this century, is very much a novel about movie-making and the impact of the "talking pictures" on people's private lives and political dreams.
But The Butterfly Plague is cast in the form of "chronicles" by a chronicler who is anything but unobtrusive and effects a reader-response very similar to that effected by Part Three of The Wars. The fourth chronicle of Book Two is entitled "The Chronicle of Evelyn de Foe," one of the new-wave Hollywood starlets. Even the minimally attentive reader is bound to think at once of the Diaries of John Evelyn, and of Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, a literary forerunner of the year of the butterfly plague recounted in Findley's second novel. Like Bernard, Findley's narrator (and Findley himself as author of TV scripts) turns over scenes like the pages of a book and directs his audience's attention to the pictures by providing comments in the margin. These comments pull attention away from the story—which every picture tells—and redirects it to the imaginative process by which that story comes into being in the story-teller's mind. Even in his plays, which have strongly literary texts, Findley's thematic concern is largely with looking, as the title Can You See Me Yet? indicates. John A.—Himself!, the title of his second play, is equally indicative of Findley's preoccupation: namely, the desire to rescue Sir John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, from the great mound of public myths, legends and stories beneath which the private individual has been buried—a passionate desire to make the audience look at and see the man himself. And he accomplishes this aim by resorting to many more spectacular theatrical effects than he employs in Can You See Me Yet?
Like Woolf, and like Oscar Wilde (alluded to in The Last of the Crazy People, where he is also quoted, and in The Wars), Timothy Findley is a stylist in the same way that Sheila Watson (The Double Hook) and Marian Engel (Bear) are stylists, but that Robertson Davies (Fifth Business) and Margaret Atwood (Lady Oracle) are not. "In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential." Frivolous though Wilde's epigrams may often appear, their truthfulness is taken seriously and fruitfully applied to literary issues by perceptive critics like Frye and Sontag. Wilde, a true descendant of another great aesthetician, Schiller, believed that "Art begins with abstract decoration," which explains why he declares that "art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril." Only "the superficial qualities last"; and "only shallow people … do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Style is surface and surface is symbol; style is what makes the imagined world visible in Findley's fictions, enabling us to see and therefore understand. Style is what Frye calls "ornamental speech" (as distinct from "persuasive speech," the other arm of rhetoric) which "acts on its hearers statically, leading them to admire its own beauty or wit." Developing a mature style takes time; and the chances are that, in risking the venture of style, a writer (like Wilde and Woolf) may well be accused by hostile critics of literary affectation, of sacrificing profound substance to superficial artifice. Findley has inevitably suffered this fate. Arguing that some subjects "have a built-in intransigence to literary treatment," Michael Taylor, reviewing The Wars, reasons that, because Findley "realizes he's dealing with intractable material,… he camouflages the fiction of his story by pretending that the novel is a species of historical document." At the same time that he accuses Findley of disguising fiction as history, Taylor illogically explains Findley's failure in The Wars by referring us to "the clipped, portentous style" and the fact that this "Hemingwayesque style pitches over into sentimentality."
Nice work if you can get it—but few of us can, both have our critical cake and eat it. In the first place, Findley's style is not like Hemingway's, which may be "clipped" but, if clipped, is not "portentous." In the second, Findley's very conscious development and deployment of style draws attention to the fact that what we are reading is fiction, just as his narrative dislocations compel acknowledgement of the imaginative process by which the fiction is brought into being. From his earliest story to his most recent novel, Findley has worked toward perfecting a style that is unmistakably his own—a marvellous mixture of the lyric and dramatic that can be put to narrative purposes. A simple example from "About Effie" comes at the end of a scene in which the mysterious maid tells Neil Cable about the man she's waiting for to come and carry her off. A thunderstorm is in progress, which precipitates Effie's telling about the man: "'There has to be thunder, or he won't come.'" The scene ends as follows:
And it rained and it rained and it rained.
But there was no more thunder.
That was over.
The short sentences and abbreviated paragraphs are characteristic. They function in a number of ways: they isolate actions, events, thoughts, emotions, images, or whatever Findley wants to focus on; by isolating an "object" and forcing the reader to focus on it in a single sentence (which may be a single word—"Pegasus"), in a single paragraph, the reading process is slowed down and becomes like a replay (in reverse) of the writing process. When the process is slowed down, the reader's attention is intensified (as in the crucial scenes of Wagner's music-drama, as in arias in general). The movement is clearly toward that stillness (or status as Kenneth Burke calls it in his Grammar of Motives) which characterizes the lyric poem. This is one reason why Findley, at his most characteristic, is less like Hemingway than like Woolf.
At its most exaggerated (as in "Losers, Finders: Strangers at the Door"), Findley's style may well prove off-putting (or even offensive) to those who pride themselves on plain-speaking, who prefer Bacon to Lamb, Austen to C. Brontë, Huxley to Carlyle. The concentrated passages of repetition, alliteration, compound epithets, self-conscious puns (often very funny), internal rhymes, line-breaks, and diverse typographical devices are all guaranteed to draw a great deal of attention to themselves. In "Losers, Finders," published in 1975, Findley was undoubtedly testing himself, stretching his style to extremes to see just how much strain it could take, before embarking on The Wars. At its most effective, as in The Wars, it still draws attention to itself, but this is precisely what Findley wants since his major thematic concern is the necessity of getting attention and the dangers of both getting and failing to get it. In The Wars, the stylistic devices are less obtrusive because more subtly paced and varied, and because the style itself wholly absorbs narrative and dramatic purposes as well as achieving a lyric intensity in the expression of moods, emotions and states of mind.
Speaking of style, Frye states that in "all literary structures we are aware of a quality that we may call the quality of a verbal personality or a speaking voice." Sometimes, when this quality is felt to be "the voice of the author himself, we call it style: le style c'est l'homme." In the novel, however, the author has "to speak with the voice of the internal characters … and sometimes dialogue and narrative are so far apart as to divide the book into two different languages." The suiting of style to "internal characters or subject" Frye calls "decorum"; and drama he defines as "epos or fiction absorbed by decorum"—or a suitable style. Much about Findley's style may fairly be called dramatic; it has been shaped by his writing of many dramas for radio and television, as well as for the stage; by his dramatization of both fiction (the Whiteoaks series) and non-fiction (The National Dream); and by his early career as an actor. But Findley's theatrical and dramatic talents tend toward the operatic, toward music-drama, a combination of words (or lyrics) and music—and spectacle on a grand scale which, in terms of writing, is style. Even suicide and assassination, the new art forms according to Jamie Taylor and his friends, should be undertaken "with style." Certainly, opera goes in for life, love and, above all, death, on a grand scale (the fiery finales of Die Walküre and Gotterdämmerung have a certain Findleyesque quality about them).
The ultimate irony of Findley's operatic style, his dramatic and often violent stories, his preference for what Browning calls "the dangerous of things"—that borderland between sanity and insanity, between the beautiful and sinister, between political issues and private problems, between social satire and psychological exploration, between dramatic spectacles and lyrical revelations, between story-telling pictures and silent images, between prose and poetry—is that, while Browning believed the lad astride the chimney-stack was a sure attention-getter whom we "must watch" (in contrast to lads who "walk the street / Sixty the minute"); Findley has rarely (if ever) received the kind of attention he merits. He has, rather, been largely ignored by reviewers and critics alike. He has, like the Cassandra of Canadian novelists, too often spoken without being listened to. This is a sad irony since, again and again, his fictions display the disastrous consequences of not paying attention—consequences that involve not only those who, like lonely children, are never loved enough to be seen and heard, but also those (like the Trojans) who have never cared enough to look or listen or mark Cassandra's words. Iris Pengelli, the psychiatrist in Other People's Children (a TV drama written in 1978), works with autistic children who live alone "in their ultra-ordered private worlds": "'These are all "my children."… All of them—look—are wearing masks. Anger. Fear. Hatred. Single emotions dominate their whole lives'" (italics mine). Dr. Pengelli has a favourite, Jeremy, whom she cannot reach; he starves himself to death. But, as a favour to a friend, she also works with Erin Foley, a teen-ager whose mother has died, who has been raped by her father, and lived most of her young life in foster-homes. In one of the last sequences in the drama, Pengelli confronts Erin: "'Look at me,'" she says. "'Tell me what you see.'" Erin answers, "'An old woman.'" Pengelli presses, "'But who?'" "'You,'" says Erin, refusing to name names. Two sequences are superimposed in the final minutes of the teleplay. Erin, looking in a mirror as she makes up her face, recalls the first sequence in which she was arrested. A policeman is asking her name, age, address, and demanding identification:
ERIN: (VOICE OFF) Me. Okay? I'm here ain't I? You got to know where I come from? I was found in a brown paper bag.
PENGELLI: Tell me what you see.
The FREEZE FRAME MELTS and becomes the PHOTOGRAPH OF EILEEN MARY [Erin's mother] holding ERIN as a BABY—with FOLEY [Erin's father] standing with them. SMILING.
ERIN: (V.O.) Me.
The prerequisite for any answer to the question, "Can you see me yet?" is that the asker know and be able to acknowledge self. The prerequisite for any answer to the question, "Can we see Findley yet?" is that the asker be able to see and hear Findley, and be willing to mark his words. And name names.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094
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."
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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 us, its features are common to our experience. Suburbia in our time, the world wars in our shared past: this chosen background enjoys the prestige of "having happened," of being true to life. The reader's disbelief is suspended from the very start: of course these houses exist, of course the war took place—and the reader is then left to wander in the maze he has accepted as real. But now comes the realization that the background is not the focus of our attention. Against it, in mid-speech, in mid-action, we see Findley's people. They are always occupied, a group obsessed with collecting whatever evidence about themselves is available—photographs, childhood memories, souvenirs in cardboard boxes—trying to understand their world. Suddenly the landscape is questioned, and the reader is made to question it with them.
Chekhov (whom Findley mentions in his introduction as another writer pursued by obsessions) proceeds in the same manner: setting up an acceptable world and peopling it with characters who fail to understand it. The reader then joins the characters in the investigation of the story.
One of the finest stories in this collection, the macabre and moving masterpiece that lends its title to the book—"Dinner Along the Amazon"—is remarkable because of the many ways in which it explores the paradox of the reader joining forces with the fictional characters to solve the riddle of their common world, a paradox illustrated by one of the characters, Fabiana:
She began in the middle of some interior monologue that perhaps had occupied her for some time—which yet seemed pertinent to the monologue of each of the others; one long sentence describing their mutual apprehension, whether it be about the past or the present or the future; arising out of the common literature which is the mind, peopled with common characters, moving over a common landscape, like a book they had all read—from which one of their voices began to quote aloud.
Their voices: the plural reveals another aspect of Findley's people. They are a conglomerate, a group functioning as one single being, each part unable to detach itself from the others, each however keeping its individual face, and yet depending on the others for survival, suffering the others' misfortunes and fears. Everything is shared, and yet the characters still feel lonely, like Siamese twins/each speaking a different language, each with his own memory. "Adult loneliness," says Findley "is the loneliness defined by remembrance."
Even when a character succeeds in freeing himself from the knot of his fellow beings (as does the Snow White maid in "About Effie"), his influence is still felt by the rest of the group. "I don't know how to begin about Effie," says the child narrator (beginning, as is usual in Findley, after the fact), "but I've got to because I think you ought to know about her. Maybe you'll meet her one day, and then you'll be glad I told you all this. If I didn't, then maybe you wouldn't know what to do."
There seem to be two ways of entering Findley's world: through the eyes of a character whose reactions we follow ("Lemonade," "About Effie"), or on our own, with no interpreter ("Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye," "Dinner Along the Amazon"). In both cases the discovery of this world comes as a shock: we thought we knew it so well, and it is never what we expected. In most cases—unlike Effie—the characters share the shock and fail in their efforts to make sense of what is happening; their struggle, their passionate trying, makes the stories.
In Findley's world there is always a struggle, a war going on: historical or social, political or personal, a combat whose ends are not known. The war means different things to different characters; "war" is the name given to the machineries of fate. For Harper (in "Lemonade") war is a dream that has silenced his father; for Neil (in "War") it is a broken promise about skating. In "Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye" it is a strict code of social graces, fought as absurdly and pathetically as the kind of war fought with guns.
To survive in this world, Findley's characters perform rituals we as readers are made to observe: Harper's morning wakening before he is allowed to kiss his wasting mother; Neil's escape into the hayloft to punish his father for betrayal; T. S. Eliot distilling words from his wife Vivienne in "Out of the Silence"; Ezra Pound purging in his cage the sin of visionary poetry in "Daybreak at Pisa." Some perform these rituals as imitations of life, as Annie Bogan does in "The Book of Pins." Others, especially the children, perform them to find a place in the world of adults.
For Findley's children the world has already happened: the laws and reasons that governed its construction have been forgotten, and what faces them now is an incomprehensible theatre stage. Here actions are mistaken for other actions, and all intentions seem wrong. A poem—reminiscent of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving, Drowning"—introduces "Losers, Finders: Strangers at the Door":
are only seen
and of screaming
is the same.
The confusion of appearances provides a key to most of Findley's stories. In "Lemonade" Harper cannot understand why his mother lets her beauty die away and imagines that the jewels she has sold can restore her lost grace; in "War" Neil takes his father's enlistment as an act of unfaithfulness; in "The People on the Shore" the narrator assumes that a dying woman's last glance is a revelation. After the confusion comes the disappointment: the jealousy, the rage of unkept promises, the disenchantment. "Dinner Along the Amazon" is thickly layered with this sequence: the characters build their hopes on their assumptions, fall from grace, and rise again, in a seemingly everlasting pattern.
Because their assumptions are mistaken, their lives are never fulfilled. In "Sometime—Later—Not Now" Diana, the young artist with whom the narrator is in love, never becomes a great pianist. "No. They won't die," she says talking about the babies she will never have. "They just won't happen." It was her own epitaph," the narrator adds. It is also the epitaph of most of Findley's people. In "Lemonade" the neighbourhood witch mistakenly supposes that Harper is setting off on an adventure: "I've been waiting for adventure all my life," she says. "How lucky that you're so young." Adventure will never come to her (perhaps because she never sets out to find it) nor will it come for Harper. The solid background reality is inflexible, and when we leave the story—even though we will never know its true end—we realize that the characters will not succeed. Defeat seems to be the very essence of a Findley being.
The children are encroached by adults, the adults are encroached by war, the countryside (in the least successful of the stories in this collection, a fable called "What Mrs. Felton Knew") is encroached by the city. Danger is always there, lurking, ready to spring, bringing change. Change is to be avoided at all costs. The children do not want to become adults, the adults do not want to grow or learn too much: a delicate balance maintains the social structure. Only the present counts: things are as they are, never as they might be. Michael, in "Dinner Along the Amazon," hates the future: "He hated anything he could not control: he hated anything he didn't know. Certainty was the only ally you could trust." And then: "The future was his enemy." Fear of change keeps Findley's people alive.
As a group, Findley's people believe they are guilty. They never question why whatever has happened, has happened to them; instead they try to explore new ways of living with their guilt. In "Losers, Finders: Strangers at the Door" the heroine tries to convince a stranger to come and live in her house and share her [plans] and her anguish; in "The Book of Pins" Annie Bogan purges her guilt through memory; in The Last of the Crazy People (Findley's first novel) guilt is paid for with death. As in Catholic confession, the assumption is always that we have sinned, that we are never guiltless.
Read after The Wars and Famous Last Words, Dinner Along the Amazon takes on another significance: it is not only a collection of extraordinary short stories—it is also a showcase of drafts, ideas, new developments, variations on the obsessions that make up Findley's chosen world. In his introduction, Findley says he was surprised to find that certain themes, certain "sounds and images," crop up again and again in his writing. It is true that what Henry James called "the figure in the carpet" repeats itself in Findley's work—dusty roads, solitary children, photographs, silence—but these images are not just samples of a collector's hobby. They constitute the certain, precise landscape of the writer, a dangerous landscape laid thick with traps, through which the characters have to pick their way. The roads have to be dusty because Nature here is not welcoming; the children have to be lonely because within the group speech carries no meaning, no comfort; the photographs are necessary because they are the only tangible evidence of these moments, these stories, with no ending and no beginning, moments snipped out of time; silence is essential because from the lack of words comes the words themselves (as in the Eliot story or in Famous Last Words). Silence is all-important. "Our world," says Findley, "had been secured for us by a World War that closed in a parable of silence."
To anyone approaching Canadian literature for the first time, it becomes painfully obvious that the quest for a national identity is a literary obsession. The reader has the overall feeling that most Canadian writers confirm their existence by constantly pinching their nationality, by making statements rather than showing a world. Timothy Findley is never guilty of rhetoric: his stories are wonderfully visual, like plays acted out on the page at a breathtaking pace. When his characters speak, they never explain: they explore, they talk, and their dialogue becomes the characters.
Certain writers, perhaps unwittingly, have defined a country through their literature: Paul Scott's India, García Márquez's Colombia, Malcolm Lowry's Mexico. Findley's world of missed historical events, assumed guilt and contrived ways of survival, of children besieged by paternalistic politics and culture, of adults deeply concerned with, but awed by, art and social graces—all this world seems to me an excellent definition of Canada. In his major novels, in this astounding Dinner Along the Amazon, Timothy Findley restores an almost forgotten power to the art of fiction: the creation of a deep, coherent world in which we see our own.
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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.
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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 of accident and conspiracy, Findley shoots a version of the Thirties and Forties lit by the twin lamps of glamour and chance.
He assumes a readership which no longer tells itself stories of destiny or revolution. Instead, we glimpse the face of Garbo or trade insults with Senor Hemingway, while in the background a little man with a Chaplin moustache makes trouble for the beautiful people. If we no longer believe such events had meaning or direction, only these foolish things can remind us of them. Findley plays on one of the few emotions that the late 20th century can claim to have patented: a heart-stopping nostalgia for a world we never knew.
Alone at the Grand Elysium Hotel, high in the Austrian Alps, in the winter of 1945, the expatriate American writer Hugh Selwyn Mauberley records the secret history of two decades, before the allied armies arrive to punish his flirtation with high-minded Fascism. (I expected him to take tea at some point with J. Alfred Prufrock, but they never meet.) Mauberley scrawls not in his notebooks but on the plaster of his empty suite: American graffiti, the writing on the wall. The inter-war Belshazzar's feast is over. He weighs the guests in the balances, and finds them wanting.
A fastidious pillar of the glitterati, Mauberley has idled away his years trailing redundant royalty around the Caribbean and the Med. As confidant of Wallis Simpson, he watched her take command of the weak-willed Prince of Wales and his shoal of parasites. Now he spills the beans about the global plot, codename Penelope, that sought to replace Hitler as the figurehead of anti-Communism with the spineless and malleable Edward Windsor … Compounded of derring-do, cultural name-dropping and bursts of bravura prose, Famous Last Words embroiders a fantasy of the past in the manner of Burgess's Earthly Powers and Doctorow's Ragtime. Such novels refer not so much to a pattern of actualities as to the clutter of cultural artefacts that gather round them.
So Mauberley's Windsors belong squarely in the William Hickey school of historiography: beings brought to life by the light of a thousand flashbulbs. Findley opens the door on a gilded mausoleum of celebrities. As his narrator reflects, 'This was the new mythology … Homer might have written it.' The neurasthenic author takes on the job of recording angel for the sins of a generation.
Both symptom and critique of the paranoid theory of history, the action of the novel steams along with the same kind of manic energy that drives all those books about how Josef Mengele killed John Paul I on the orders of Anthony Blunt and the Freemasons. Findley knows better; the final secret is that there is none. Truth 'was just another bit of gossip in amongst the litter of names and dirty jokes on the partitions of a comfort station'. He arranges the fabulous monsters of the entre-deux-guerres into a gallery of archetypes, seen hazily through the veils of fame. 'History is made in the electric moment, and its flowering is all in chance.' So writes his hero, as did Nietzsche long ago. Lavish in its disenchantments, Famous Last Words holds up a glass, not to the 1930, but to the suspicion and amnesia of the Age of Reagan.
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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 tormented relationship between a husband and wife. "Bragg and Minna" begins with a brief prologue from Minna's journal of despair and the image of three men walking up a hill in Australia. One of the three is Stanley Nob, "the sad, mad poet from Sydney." Another is Stuart Bragg, estranged husband of Minna Joyce, who has just died from cancer. The third is Bragg's homosexual lover. They are preparing to scatter Minna's ashes, and from this image proliferate scenes from a woman's struggle to escape her husband. Minna, whose central anarchy and strange power of compassion are vividly explored in the next story, had been an avowed enemy of "ladyhood." Her life, until she met and married Bragg, was one of "inherited privilege mixed with deliberate squalor." Escaping from Rosedale and its snobberies, she went to Parkdale to do "good works" among "all its resident rubbies and gentle crazies, dressed in all weathers in their summer coats and woollen mittens and all their hair cut straight across in bangs and all with their tam-o'-shanters pulled down over their ears and their eyes as crafty and innocent all at once as the eyes of bears." The sense of place is thrillingly effective, as is the sense of drama. Husband and wife are both writers, though Bragg produces short, terse books at three-year intervals, while Minna writes 11 books before she dies (there are four more in bureau drawers), all told with less ambiguity than Bragg's, "very much the way she had lived."
Minna wants a child desperately, but Bragg, afraid of a genetic curse in the family (he even thinks his homosexuality is a means of frustrating the curse), wishes to avoid procreating. Ultimately, Minna wins. But the marriage is over, and she goes off to Australia with her daughter Stella (born hideously deformed and brain-damaged). Only after Minna's death, when her ashes are scattered over an aboriginal petroglyph (which seems to be an emblem for their freakish child), does Bragg recognize the real monster as himself. The irony is sharp: he, the homosexual outcast in a conservative society, has cast out love from his life.
The pairing of these two stories effectively illustrates the strangeness of Minna's love. "A Gift of Mercy" details the dramatic dichotomy between Minna's compassion for strangers who are plagued by demons and her own lack of articulateness. However, the two stories would have been even better had they been fused into a novella.
Findley is best when he doesn't seek glib symmetry or a series of shocks. "Foxes" (in which a man identifies with a Japanese theatre mask), "The Sky" (in which a paranoid man suffers a breakdown), and "Dreams" (another breakdown story that could have been imagined by David Cronenberg) are all interesting in themselves and all stem from a common desire to discover and touch an essential humanity. But they are melodramatic, more contrived than credible. "Almeyer's Mother" reveals a woman's long-held secret about her father's incestuous urges. The flick of the underside of a young girl's breast is sexually suggestive enough, but Findley almost overplays his hand in describing the family photograph that reveals an "alarming affection" between father and daughter.
Findley's craft is more assured in other stories. The duo of "The Name's the Same" and "Real Life Writes Real Bad" explores the chasm between two brothers, the elder of whom is an alcoholic who repudiates reality and whose almost suicidal despair has an acute psychological root. In these stories, Findley glides in and out of the past, achieving his microcosmic focus through lists and minor details, finding emblems of self-destruction and highlighting the sharp division between untidy real life and neatly ordered art.
The best story is "Stones," yet another about breakdown. The narrator, Ben Max, in his early 50s, shuffles time—the prewar days when his parents were successful florists, and the wartime and post-war days when the family began to feel the stress of the father's dishonourable discharge for cowardice at Dieppe. The stones of Dieppe, which had trapped the tanks and precipitated the slaughter of Canadian forces, become a recurring symbol in Max's memory. In a sense, they turn his father to stone, a man whose positive emotions fossilize as he is spiritually broken. After his death his ashes are scattered like powdered stone in the sea at Dieppe. This is a story that attempts to avoid sentimentality in its re-creation of a troubled political period and an anguished family history. Yet there is an inevitability about its final nostalgic image of Mr. and Mrs. Max walking their children on a Sunday afternoon. The past, Findley shows, doesn't have to lie like heavy stones on the heart.
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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 People." Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 54 (Winter 1994): 168-97.
Examines elements and influences of Gothicism, the American southern literary tradition, homosexuality, the grotesque, and autobiography in The Last of the Crazy People.
Grosskurth, Phyllis. "New Canadian Novels." Canadian Saturday Night 82, No. 5 (May 1967): 39-40.
Offers a mixed appraisal of The Last of the Crazy People.
Kröller, Eva-Marie. "The Exploding Frame: Uses of Photography in Timothy Findley's The Wars." Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes 16, Nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1981): 68-74.
Explores the importance of photography and photographs in The Wars.
Nicholson, Mervyn. "God, Noah, Lord Byron—and Timothy Findley." Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 23, No. 2 (April 1992): pp. 87-107.
Argues that Findley's examination of the biblical flood myth in Not Wanted on the Voyage aims to "reveal, forcefully and clearly, the power relations in the Bible and in any culture that professes to take the Bible literally." Nicholson compares Findley's retelling of the flood with that of Lord Byron's Heaven and Earth.
Shields, E. F. "'The Perfect Voice': Mauberly as Narrator in Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words." Canadian Literature 119 (Winter 1988): 84-98.
Examines the narrative strategies employed in Famous Last Words.
Sullivan, Jack. Review of The Telling of Lies, by Timothy Findley. The New York Times Book Review 93 (9 October 1988): 34.
Highly favorable, albeit short, assessment of The Telling of Lies.
Weiss, Allan. "Private and Public in Timothy Findley's The Wars." Canadian Literature/Littérature canadienne, Nos. 138-39 (Fall-Winter 1993): 91-102.
Examines the relationship between privacy and the public sphere in The Wars, asserting that "[the] entire novel, in fact, is in the form of an effort by the researcher-narrator to break through … public reticence to discover the real Robert Ross."
W. E. L. Review of Dinner along the Amazon, by Timothy Findley. Kliatt: Young Adult Paperback Book Guide 20, No. 1 (January 1986): 29.
Offers praise for Dinner along the Amazon. The critic briefly notes themes in the volume and argues some young readers may be frustrated with the book.
Aitken, Johan. "'Long Live the Dead': An Interview with Timothy Findley." Canadian Fiction, No. 33 (1982): 79-93.
Interview originally conducted in April, 1980, while Findley was writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, in which Findley discusses The Wars, its composition, characters, and influences, as well as various aspects of Canadian literature and criticism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5139
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 enters his house in the midst of a raging thunderstorm and is immediately ambushed: "Right then I didn't know what it was. It looked like a ghost, you know, and then it looked like a great big crazy overcoat, and it sort of fell at me" (Dinner Along the Amazon). The modulation here from the Gothic to the eerie but domestic—from "ghost" to "big gray overcoat"—prepares us for the discovery of the truly "domestic" nature of Neil's attacker: it is the new maid, Effie.
Neil is only the first of many Findley characters who are "attacked by the domestic." The subject of the short story "War" (1957–58) is not military war at all, but rather the domestic warfare caused by a father's decision to go to war. Neil retreats to the loft of the bam, from where he fires domestic missiles—golfballs, stones—at his father. But in Findley's fictional world, stone-throwing and shooting are distinctly related. In "Lemonade" Harper Dewey, mourning the withdrawal of his mother's affection, hurls a stone through her window. And later, in The Wars (1977), we meet Eugene Taffler, who is a practised hand at firing missiles, both on and off the battlefield; Robert and Clifford Purchas see him throwing stones at bottles on the Alberta prairie. "All you get in this war," he complains, "is one little David against another … Just a bunch of stone throwers." Already we begin to see the system of interlocking images which forms the fictional wars of Timothy Findley.
In human warfare, missiles are most often fired in order to obtain or to defend territory; indeed, the struggle for territory is endemic to war. This struggle, beginning as early as "Lemonade" and forming complex patterns of domestic invasion and retreat in The Last of the Crazy People and The Wars, is no less basic to Findley's fictions. "Lemonade" opens with a careful observation of territorial rules; Harper must wait in the chair outside his mother's room while she is awakened and refreshed by the maid Bertha Millroy. When Renalda Dewey's troubles burst upon the domestic scene, the carefully ordered procedure is upset. Renalda begins a strategic retreat from her son—strategic because it is designed to keep him in the dark about her alcoholism. The first stage of this retreat is the locking away of property—Renalda's locking of the highboy drawer so that Harper cannot ascertain how much jewellery she has sold to supply her alcoholic needs. This act—the first act of denial by his mother—has all the effect, for Harper, of a physical blow: "Gone. Everything was suddenly motionless. Never before had the key not been there." This act of removing the key is merely a prelude, however, to the locking away of a more valuable possession of the young child's: his mother. One morning Bertha suddenly announces that Harper is no longer allowed to see his mother in the mornings, "Upon which she fled, under the protection of shock, into the newly forbidden reaches of the upper floor." The quasi-military withdrawal of both natural and surrogate mothers represents a major retreat in domestic terms, leaving the stunned child alone to brood and to regroup his forces.
Muster his forces Harper does, and in response to the retreating actions of his mother and Bertha he tries, at first, to launch an offensive. The first hint of this advance comes in that crucial episode where Harper is locked out of the highboy drawer. As a form of compensation, he makes incursions into his mother's cosmetics, stirring her powder with his finger:
It came into his mind that his mother would know by this that he had been there, where he wasn't allowed: but it passed out again: he didn't care: she had locked him out, and he had found his way in, as the wind had found its way back in through the windows.
The gauntlet has been thrown down; Harper is determined to make incursions into enemy territory whenever and wherever possible in order to win back the spoils of his mother's affection. Surveying his mother's room during her absence, he "vehemently" stakes his claim: "I've got to get back in here … I've got to get back in this room."
But as all military strategists know, a well-executed and determined defence may easily rebuff or wear away a formidable attack. Renalda's retreats are both artful and absolute. On one occasion, she charms Harper with conversation ("You have a nice day with Bertha, dear"—the very commodity which Harper craves—while she positions herself for a swift escape: the car engine "gave a roar. 'Mother.' She was—'Good-bye!'—Gone." As for so many of Findley's female characters—Jessie Winslow in The Last of the Crazy People, Mrs. Ross in The Wars—the family home becomes the final stage for Renalda's retreat; she locks herself alone in her room to suffer the miseries of her condition.
Confronted by such a determined retreat on his mother's part, Harper finally hits upon another strategy: to retreat himself, in order to draw his mother out of her self-imposed exile. In this spirit, he formulates the plan of sleeping overnight in Miss Kennedy's tree. "I had to," he explains to Bertha, "I want her to notice." Unfortunately, a strategic retreat can only be effective when the other party takes note of that retreat. This is where Harper's plan fails; Renalda is too busy making her own retreat from life—staying out all night—to notice her son's absence. One retreat may be strategic; two are utterly useless.
Faced with this preliminary defeat, Harper must once again cast about for a workable strategy. He opts this time for an offensive action, but one which is not well suited to his problem: selling his mother's liquor at his lemonade bazaar. Findley clothes his description of Harper's preparations in appropriate military language: he has "commandeered" several frosted bottles from his mother's favourite hiding place (strategically leaving the partially emptied one behind in order to delay his mother's discovery of his act). "Everything," we hear, "seemed at his command." Explaining his "cover" activity—selling lemonade—to Bertha, he claims that it's merely a diversion" from his problems. A diversion, indeed, but in a military as well as a recreational sense.
Harper does engineer a truce of sorts, but not with his mother. The neighbourhood children and the supposed "witch," Miss Kennedy, fueling the effect of the liquor-laced lemonade, begin to form a companionable, if somewhat tipsy, group. A tearful Harper, unable to bring about any such reconciliation with his mother, resorts to open hostilities: he throws a stone through her window. "She was holding it in her hand when they found her," Findley's narrator informs us, and this linking of the stone and Renalda's act of shooting herself with the Colt revolver draws the images of stone and gun together once more. Harper has become a warlike David, a thrower of stones, but Renalda has made her ultimate retreat in suicide, and it is an irreversible one.
If "Lemonade" ends with the ultimate domestic retreat, The Last of the Crazy People ends with the ultimate act of domestic attack: murder. One senses that in the novel Findley has confronted what he could not bear to confront in the short story: that domestic war may end in a harmful act of aggression which is, if not entirely justifiable, surely understandable. (He confronts a similar possibility in his sixth novel. The Telling of Lies .) Hooker Winslow carries to their logical extreme the stone-throwing impulses of both Harper Dewey and Neil from "War," but here, the stones have been transformed into their military equivalents, bullets.
However, the difference between the systems of war found in "Lemonade" and The Last of the Crazy People is one of complexity as well as degree. "Lemonade" is a blueprint of domestic war; The Last of the Crazy People is Findley's first attempt to create a multi-dimensional model from that blueprint. One indication of this growing complexity is the first appearance in his fiction of the famous war theorist, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), whose treatise On War (1832) finds its way onto Gilbert Winslow's bookshelf, just as it will later find its way into Levitt's knapsack in the trenches of France in The Wars. Findley's inclusion of a theorist of war in his fictional world is a tantalizing clue to his readers that the domestic struggles in that fiction are to be understood in relation to the larger theoretical framework of war.
It is true that one sees in The Last of the Crazy People basically the same territorial squabble as in "Lemonade"—the retreat of the mother—but in the novel Findley enlarges upon and varies the sorts of stratagems used to halt that retreat. In the short story, we are presented only with Harper's battle against this maternal manoeuvre, but here, the greater scope of the novel form allows Findley to depict and compare several family members' idiosyncratic means of waging war. Nicholas Winslow's part in the territorial wars of his family is essentially passive; gazing at the bedroom door which his wife Jessie has closed against him and the family, he thinks, "This is my room. Why shouldn't I go in there?"—the simple childlike response which we see in Harper Dewey when he is confronted by the occupied territory of his mother's room. Yet Nicholas lacks the childlike exuberance which would allow him to carry this thought into action; throughout the novel he appears a jaded man, aged before his time. Even the thought of breaking down Jessie's door is alien ground to him: "The thought trespassed in his mind, just as he wished that he could be strong enough to trespass beyond the door. But he didn't."
His elder son, Gilbert, on the other hand, represents that thought of trespass put into action with a vengeance. Gilbert is, by temperament and by design, a trespasser. He trespasses on the family's rigid code of silence by getting drunk and inviting conflict to come out into the open. He trespasses in the same way on society's code of silence; faced with the accusation that he has gotten Mr. Parker's daughter pregnant, he breaks in on a highly stylized social ritual—a society ball—to ask, "Will you openly accuse me?" It comes as no surprise, then, that Gilbert's major strategy in the family's territorial battles should be frontal attack. He trespasses beyond the door which even Jessie's husband dares not open: "MOTHER?… Are you going to come down?… Or am I going to come up?… You aren't really sick, you know…. What are you going to do about it?" In Clausewitz's terms, Gilbert chooses one of the three ways of wearing out the enemy, "invasion": "the occupation of the enemy's territory, not with a view to keeping it, but in order to levy contributions upon it, or to devastate it." But, as Clausewitz himself warns, the defeat of the enemy is not the immediate objective of such a manoeuvre; it is, rather, "to do him damage in a general way." This is, in effect, the key to the failure of Gilbert's offensive; it does not bring Jessica to any new resolution as much as it puts her even more solidly on the defensive, and her retreat becomes an outright rejection: "I will not go … on … giving … birth … to you … and to Hooker … and to that … god … damned … baby … day … after … bloody … day … for the rest of my LIFE!… I hate you!" Inflicting "general harm" on an already mentally unbalanced woman is, Gilbert discovers too late, a serious strategical blunder.
If Gilbert represents the option of invasion and Nicholas the passive stance, or what Clausewitz calls "the wearing out of the enemy," there do not seem to be many strategical options left open for Hooker. Indeed, Gilbert and Nicholas, taken together, represent the two forces which are at war within Harper Dewey in "Lemonade": the desire to attack and the desire to retreat. In The Last of the Crazy People, therefore, Findley allows himself to study what is the most likely condition of a young child caught up in domestic war:
the absence of strategy altogether. In the early stages of the novel, Hooker seems almost as determined to avoid Jessie as Gilbert is to confront her. Carrying home his straight-A report card, he vows "not [to] even ask for her." As the novel progresses, he is repeatedly cast in the role of the observer of other family members' strategic moves. He inadvertently witnesses his father's attempt to talk to Jessie at her door and when Gilbert is storming his mother's bastion, Harper remains the alert but passive pair of eyes and ears; he climbs onto the maid Iris's lap and awaits the passing of the verbal storm.
Hooker is most obviously and poignantly the onlooker, bereft of strategy, during the family's most organized and concerted campaign to defeat Jessie's illness: their birthday party for her. Each of the family's presents to Jessie reflects a private campaign to lure her downstairs and into the family for good. Gilbert gives her stockings which are, as Gilbert announces in his frontal-attack manner, "to wear downstairs." Rosetta's gift of bath beads and lipstick is a more veiled appeal to Jessie to reassume her old mask—the mask of traditional femininity. Appropriately, Jessie, with the intuition which often attends the deeply disturbed, "unmasks" the hidden symbolism of Rosetta's gift; she turns these icons of passive womanhood into symbols of phallic intent. "'It reminds me'," she says of the lipstick, "'of something.' Working the dial at its base, raising and lowering the small red tongue of colouring. 'Isn't it funny,' she said, and smiled directly at Nicholas." If the family is going to wage a war of symbolism, Jessie is prepared to fight back with the same weapons.
Nicholas's gift of the nightgown, the "bride's nightie," as Jessie puts it, is the last straw; it provokes in her the same counter-attack which she had earlier been forced to make against Gilbert: "I hate you for this." But Hooker's gift is to be distinguished from this long line of artificial products; he gives Jessie a robin's egg which he naively hopes will hatch a bird. In Hooker, therefore, we see one who is without artifice or guile; he is capable of hatching neither bird nor plot.
Unlike Harper Dewey in "Lemonade," who is continually casting about for workable stratagems, Hooker Winslow is devoid of stratagems until his final decisive act—taking the Colt revolver from the Harris home and using it against his family. His direct fall into what Clausewitz calls absolute war thus sets him apart from his strategic-minded family, and Findley, by having the family Hotspur, Gilbert, remove himself from the scene by committing suicide, focuses on Hooker's act. That such an act—the destruction of human beings—could result from even an absence of strategy is shocking proof of the immense power for destructiveness hidden and unacknowledged in our civilian wars.
What we begin to see in The Last of the Crazy People, then, is a greater willingness on Findley's part to have various family members and their interactions embody the dynamics of war. Herein lies the three-dimensionality of the novel in contrast to "Lemonade," where we see an elementary conflict: mother retreats, child schemes, retreats, and finally advances. Here all the members of the Winslow family have, as we have seen, wars to wage, and they must be considered both as individuals and as part of a complex dynamic of domestic war. As Findley once reflected [in Graeme Gibson's Eleven Canadian Novelists] on The Last of the Crazy People, "ultimately I realised that one of the things that I had said in that book had something to do with this impasse, and that the Winslow family, as individuals and collectively, represented a lot of values and things that must go."
This new emphasis on the dynamics of family interaction finds several outlets in the novel, most explicitly in the increased use of war terminology to describe domestic conditions (a phenomenon witnessed only briefly in "Lemonade," when Harper "commandeers" his mother's liquor). Here Findley begins a practise which reaches its heights in The Wars—the use of war similes. At one point in a crucial domestic clash, we are told that "Nicholas spoke as he might have if he had been asked, 'Do you know Adolf Hitler?'" After the inquest into Gilbert's suicide, Nicholas is again metaphorically clothed in the terminology of war; his cigarette box "cellophane crunkled tike machine-gun fire." Incidentally, the latter simile was singled out for criticism by an early reviewer of the novel, George Bowering, who [in Canadian Forum 48 (1968)] christened it "inaccurate." But given the aura of emotional warfare which pervades the Winslow household, such a detail is not simply accurate or inaccurate (similes seldom are), but evocative and apposite. Such a detail highlights the oppressive silences and neuroses of that household, wherein even an ordinary act may take on hostile overtones.
What the simile does linguistically—drawing together two realms of experience often thought quite separate—Findley does symbolically in his first novel as well. Gilbert's bookshelf, filled with the books whose titles he has Hooker read aloud, serves as a type of microcosm or mise en abyme of this juxtaposition of two realms—war and domesticity. Byron, Shelley, Arnold and Keats share shelfspace with "Chums '38 … Chums '39 … Chums '40 … Chums '41 … Airplanes of the Future …" and, of course, Clausewitz, whose name Hooker ironically domesticates in translation: "Closets—." The most telling sign, though, that Gilbert is living in an inner world torn between aesthetic pleasures and wartime disillusion is the presence on his shelves of the following titles: "Tender is the Night … The Great Gatsby … Tales of the Jazz Age … The Far Side of Paradise … The Disenchanted … This Side of Paradise …" and, most ironically, "The Crack Up." As a Fitzgeraldian aesthete disillusioned by a decrepit post-war society, Gilbert finds himself, in the words of one of his older literary mentors, "wandering between two worlds / One lost, the other powerless to be born." This image of intellectual stillbirth—the social equivalent of Jessica Winslow's stillborn child—adds an extra degree of complexity to the wars of The Last of the Crazy People. It also foreshadows the fervent cultural concerns of later novels such as Famous Last Words and The Butterfly Plague, wherein Findley examines in greater detail twentieth-century culture under siege.
Hooker, though no strategist, is by no means unschooled in the ways of war. Several wars are mentioned by family members throughout the novel; Rosetta likens the beleaguered family to "the Jews at Auschwitz," and Gilbert, Iris and Hooker engage in a conversation about political assassinations, including the one which touched off the First World War. But the war which sheds the most light on the family struggles in The Last of the Crazy People is not a war between nations, but a civil war. the American Civil War (1861–65). It has become by now a critical commonplace that Findley's first novel was influenced by the writers of the American South; critics of the novel have busied themselves tracing the presence of Faulkner, Welty, or McCullers. But the South inhabits The Last of the Crazy People in a much more complex political and textual sense; the war between North and South is a hidden intertext, a war whose details bear in subtle and penetrating ways on the war within a single family unit.
Though Findley has set his novel in Canada, he deliberately invokes the conflict between North and South, between blacks and whites, throughout the work. Hooker upsets the maid Iris by asking why she calls herself Miss Iris Browne on the telephone when anyone would know that she is speaking because, as Hooker puts it, "You speak Negro." Iris senses that she faces not one opponent in this racial war, but two: "You get it from that Gilbert. Sometimes I could take him and hit him so hard he'd split down the middle, he makes me so mad. Where does he think we live—the States?"
Canadian this story certainly is, as Iris and other telling details such as the evening Toronto paper received by the Winslows remind us. Yet the constant invocation of the United States and racial tensions is present in the novel for a purpose. Later, we meet another black maid, Alberta Perkins, who, her Canadian first name notwithstanding, is closely associated with the South and slavery. Speaking of her present task in the Harris household—going to the dogcatcher's to rescue the family pet—she exclaims, "Time was … the dogs chased us!" Significantly, it is Alberta who prophesies that Hooker will run away from home, almost as though she recognizes a state of slavery when she sees it, in whatever form. Domestic slavery here finds its historical counterpart—the slavery of the blacks in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century America—and even Iris's threat of splitting Gilbert down the middle begins to take on ominous historical overtones.
The actual references to the Civil War in the novel are sparing, but they set up a framework of historical reference within which the reader may forge some intriguing connections. The war surfaces as a topic of conversation in the aforementioned discussion about political assassination; John Wilkes Booth, according to Gilbert, "wanted to divide the nation over Mr. Lincoln's war." Thus the concept of division itself becomes multiplied, subdivided: aiming to divide a nation over a war which quite literally divided a nation.
Division is the central motif of one of the most famous statements to have come out of the Civil War period, and it is a statement rich in implications for Findley's novel. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," Lincoln declared on June 16, 1858. One could imagine no better epigraph for The Last of the Crazy People than this pronouncement, with its determined juxtaposition of military and domestic war. One even hears echoes of its apocalyptic message in the conversation between Iris and Gilbert about the Civil War:
"Now Iris," he said, "I'm reading Lee's Lieutenants. And you know what? I've been thinking. If the South—"
… "The South of what?" said Iris with practiced stupidity. And something else that Hooker could not quite put his finger on. A practiced something else.
It was always the same, every day, now, in the closed-up house. Two people talking, and the rest all silent.
Findley does more here than to evoke a sense of the Winslow house divided; he also introduces an important intertext to his novel: Douglas Southall Freeman's three-volume study of the Confederate war in the East, Lee's Lieutenants (1942–44). In his work Freeman delves into the characters and propensities of the men who worked under Robert E. Lee's command, and what results is as much a work of psychological scrutiny as of military analysis. Lee's lieutenants, taken as a whole, form the military equivalent of a bickering family, full of jealousies and animosities. "In the hearts of Lee's subordinates," Freeman writes, "were all the explosive qualities that existed elsewhere." How appropriate that Gilbert should read and keep on his telltale bookshelf a work which studies military relationships much as a family therapist might study a domestic unit.
Once one is willing to make this connection between the two divided houses of the United States in 1861 and the Winslow family in 1964, other remarkable parallels surface. Jessica's withdrawal into the hermitage of her bedroom is tantamount to a secession from the family state and, as Daniel Webster realized one hundred years before, "There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession." The attempts of the other family members to lure her back into their lives (by buying her birthday gifts, for example) find their historical counterparts in the efforts of politicians such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay in 1850 to placate the South and keep the Union intact. In both instances, lure and compromises fail, and family members settle the conflict by picking up a gun. As an observer of the Civil War, Mrs. Mary Chestnut from South Carolina wrote, in characteristically domestic terms, "we are divorced, North from South, because we have hated each other so."
Hooker Winslow's obsession with assassination may also owe something to the Civil War aura of the novel and, more specifically, to the John Brown legend. Brown, the fanatical anti-Slavery activist from Kansas, murdered five men from the pro-slavery South who had moved into Kansas, men who, according to some sources, may themselves have been escaping from the social system of the South rather than trying to perpetuate it in Kansas. After these murders and before his abortive attempt to seize Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, Brown located his operations in Canada. There he and his cohorts drew up a provisional constitution for the United States as well as a plan for "violent emancipation." The term suits precisely the final acts of Hooker Winslow; his father, shot, is described as "thrown back into violent stillness," a stillness which Hooker by now associates with emancipation from all care. One last detail which draws Brown's campaign for "violent emancipation" even closer to Hooker's is his madness. There was evidence of madness in the maternal line of the Brown family, and Brown had a sibling and a son who went mad. The similarity to Hooker's condition as "the last of the crazy people" is all too evident.
The mention of Harper's Ferry touches off other connections between this violent emancipator and the characters who people Findley's fictions. Harper Dewey's Christian name recalls the government arsenal which Brown tried to seize (an apt connection, given Harper's own seizure of his mother's alcoholic arsenal). His surname is militaristic as well; Commodore George Dewey was the commander of the American naval forces in the Spanish American War, whose rallying cry, "Full speed ahead—damn the torpedoes," has become household parlance.
Hooker himself bears a name which is rich in Civil War associations. The family name, "Winslow," recalls the well-known artist who sketched troops during the Civil War: Winslow Homer. But the name "Hooker" carries even more in the way of Civil War associations. General Joseph ("Fighting Joe") Hooker was one of the leading generals on the Union side, but one with a bizarre history. He commanded the Army of the Potomac from 1863 until the eve of Gettysburg, and his physical demeanour was somewhat reminiscent of Hooker's ("curling blond hair … a complexion 'as delicate and silken as a woman's'"). General Hooker's plan, like the Winslows', was one of luring—drawing General Lee out of what military historian Robert Leckie has called his "fortified defenses," a term admirably suited to Jessie Winslow's condition. The perplexing part of Hooker's career arose at Chancellorsville, where he had Lee's forces outnumbered, outflanked—and suddenly retreated, for reasons which still remain somewhat mysterious today. Findley, though, may well have read the account of Hooker's failure which appears in Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants, and one of the main reasons postulated there for Hooker's mistake is faulty communications—in short, the wires and signal stations crossed up. Furthermore, Freeman reports, Hooker may have believed rumours to the effect that Lee did not have sufficient numbers to do battle. These problems are precisely those faced by Hooker Winslow on his domestic battlefield in The Last of the Crazy People. He believes that the Parker family really will hold a shotgun to Gilbert's head when he hears Rosetta using this figure of speech, and he believes Alberta Perkins when she tells him that Armageddon is near and that the only "answer to per-di-tion … is merciful death." Hooker, like his Civil War namesake, is a warrior in a field where messages are unclear and threatening. Faced with such a situation, he can only trust what he hears and resort to merciful death as a means of saving life.
This conclusion, startling though it is to many readers of The Last of the Crazy People, is the only outcome possible in the world of domestic warfare which Timothy Findley has created. By setting the young children of his early fiction—from Neil in "War" and "About Effie" to Harper in "Lemonade" and Hooker in The Last of the Crazy People—in domestic situations which become increasingly warlike and increasingly complex in their approximations to war, Findley finally arrives at the point where metaphorical and literal wars intersect—the point where the stones thrown by Neil and Harper become the shots fired by Hooker. It is this moment of intersection, of embarking on our own private and domestic civil wars that both fascinates and terrifies Timothy Findley—"The moment," as Lincoln said of his civil war, "when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live."
This is the same moment of intersection which Findley's Robert Ross will witness in The Wars; Robert, too, eventually decides that "slavery must die" when he disobeys his commander and attempts to set the horses free. That novel, which appeared a full decade after The Last of the Crazy People, and which heralded, for many Canadian readers, the arrival of an exciting new maker of fictions, is less a beginning than a culmination of the civilian wars which Timothy Findley had already charted in his early fiction. Retreating mothers, stone-throwers and divided houses do indeed make a return appearance ten years later; Timothy Findley, we discover, has been writing "the wars" all along.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254
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 middle-aged man in the title story scatters his father's ashes, they are "treacherous" but "also beautiful," together but alone.
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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 for the honour and prestige we lavish on psychiatrists in contemporary society.
Kurtz craves power, which in his case translates as research grants and donations. He gets it by violating his patients—clients as he calls them—using their intimate revelations to escalate their depravities, to blackmail them emotionally, and to subjugate their psyches. His clients, though, are not so much victims as instruments that Kurtz wields for his own nefarious purposes. The real victims in Timothy Findley's eyes are the children who are traumatized and tortured by their own fathers, most of whom are Kurtz's clients.
What a hell-hole Findley has created: the mad are sane, moral and sexual taboos have evaporated; AIDS is rampant, while another plague, called sturnusemia, is even more wanton. Nobody knows how it is transmitted, but because victims turn speckled in the terminal stages of the disease, public health officials, in the absence of a scientific explanation, have in desperation blamed birds, sending extermination squads around the city spraying trees, gardens, and ravines with deadly chemicals. The young, the environment and, by extension, life itself are in mortal danger while men abuse their own children and women douse themselves in alcohol and sex and fling themselves on metaphorical pyres.
This cautionary moral tale is driven by Findley's outrage at the depravity that he sees around him. There are echoes of Robertson Davies in the gossip and theatricality of this novel and in the skilful way Findley depicts old, monied Toronto as a small Ontario town. Ultimately, though, Findley lacks that old magician's bluster and sleight of hand. Headhunter dangles too many loose ends and, as in all of Findley's novels that I can think of except The Wars, there are too many obeisances to the literary monuments of earlier writers. There is no reason for Findley to invoke Conrad to reinforce his imaginary world. He can stand on his own prose and tell his own story without props or crutches. It is time for him to throw off these literary shrouds and come out as the unadorned and powerful novelist that he is more than capable of being.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802
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 tracing the patterns of mental breakdown…. Psychiatric case loads; everywhere, carried alarming numbers. Broken dreamers, their minds in ruin. This was the human race."
While Mr. Findley's dystopia signifies a shortage of happiness, there is no shortage of characters. The author's large cast constitutes a cross section of Toronto society, from kitchenmaids to painters to press barons, and the city itself is evoked so minutely and with such affection that it, too, becomes a kind of character.
At the center of the novel, however, is an unlikely trio. There is Lilah Kemp, former librarian, spiritualist and schizophrenic, "diagnosed according to her raising of the dead and her conversations with literary characters and famous persons from the past." And there are a pair of psychiatrists, Marlow and Rupert Kurtz, who act as standard bearers for the novel's conceptions of good and evil.
Marlow is no saint, of course, he merely possesses a conscience, which seems to have become a rare commodity in Toronto. But Kurtz is a black hat of memorable proportions. As the director of the city's most prestigious psychiatric institute (and confessor to many of its most powerful miscreants), this "harbinger of darkness," sets all sorts of ugly schemes in motion, involving blackmail, child pornography, torture, suicide and murder. Kurtz intends to "go against the current until he reaches that point where the river rises—the point of absolute power." At first only Lilah Kemp gauges the extent of Kurtz's wickedness, and in the end only Marlow is capable of confronting him with his crimes.
The attentive reader, noting the names and the talk of going upstream, will conclude that a prior work of literature is casting a long shadow over the present one. But Mr. Findley makes no secret of the fact that Headhunter is one long gloss on Heart of Darkness. Indeed, in the opening scene Lilah Kemp panics at the thought that she may have released Kurtz from the very pages of Joseph Conrad's novel. By updating this century-old parable of power and corruption. Mr. Findley demonstrates its relevance to an age in which both concepts have undergone a great many ghastly refinements. As one character points out, "Conrad was not the first to conjure Kurtz—and not the last. He was merely the first to give him that name."
But Mr. Findley has another purpose in mind, too. After all, Headhunter pilfers several other works for its characters, including The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary and Peter Rabbit. These borrowings suggest a kind of interpenetration of literature and life, a sense that the best books do not merely tell a good story but add, as R. P. Blackmur once wrote, to our stock of available reality. Fiction seems to enfold the very act of human intercourse, enabling Marlow to claim that "we write each other's lives—by means of fictions. Sustaining fictions. Uplifting fictions. Lies. This way, we lead one another toward survival."
Like many a loose and baggy saga, Headhunter has moments when the proliferation of characters and subplots begins to sap its narrative energy. In addition, Mr. Findley's spare prose occasionally lapses into pulpishness ("If his eyes had been lasers, his gaze would have burned a hole in the glass"). Still, it's rare to find an author in which the moralist and the entertainer cohabit so naturally. And if it is true, as Emerson insisted, that "every age, like every human body, has its own distemper," then Mr. Findley has diagnosed our own with eloquence and indignation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
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 Conrad's Kurtz) tracking down a sinister psychiatrist is exciting indeed. Alas, Timothy Findley, celebrated Canadian author, opts for more literal parallels with Conrad's novella. Another psychiatrist—named Marlow!—arrives at the center, a forced development that Findley tries to shrug off: "It's just sort of crazy—the kind of coincidence that happens once in a lifetime." Perhaps because of their allegorical function, neither Kurtz nor Marlow is as engaging as Lilah—she is crafty, wickedly likable, expertly drawn but finally not involved as fully as anticipated in bringing Kurtz out of his new station of power.
Findley intends to locate a contemporary heart of darkness: "If there are new forms of human beings, then it follows there must be new forms of madness." In place of the river up which Conrad's Marlow trails his Kurtz, Findley substitutes the convoluted corridors of psychiatric power ruled, godlike, by a modern Kurtz. Findley's Marlow discovers that Kurtz is condoning behavioral experiments in the control of the young. Kurtz is aware of, and even visits, the Club of Men, a group of wealthy Canadians who perpetrate increasing debaucheries.
Another horror is loose in the city. As deadly as AIDS, a new illness, "sturnusemia," is being suspiciously attributed by the government to starlings. D-squads are annihilating birds and wasting the landscape.
Given these grim developments, it's surprising that Findley manages terrific satire along the way: Gallery-opening art-chat becomes uproarious during the unveiling of deranged paintings of mutilation. A "fable" within the novel purports to reveal how Jean-Paul Sartre really died. At a formal dinner, Sartre expounds: "We pay attention to one another in accordance with our functions in one another's lives…. I desire wine—I call the waiter…. And once my glass is filled, then—poof!—he is gone. The waiter no longer exists." The waiter opens fire and—poof—kills Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Findley makes a hilarious, satirically illuminating commentary on existentialism.
Throughout, impeccable sentences and sophisticated insights delight. At the art opening, Kurtz muses:
Nearly everyone in the room … has violence somewhere in the family background—the violence always on an operatic scale—Verdi, not Puccini. Never Wagner. Tasteful—but full-blown; a generation of weddings sung by tenors and sopranos—with all the dark basses and contraltos waiting in the wings … La Forza del destino
Part of this novel's commercial success in Canada may result from its Canadian readers' familiarity with Toronto society. The uninitiated reader may find the book too long and become frustrated by its intended descriptions of city landscapes, its vast cast of glamorously named characters (Fabiana, Julian Slade), each of whom, major and minor, carries loads of unneeded background. There's too much fussy action. Cigarettes are lit and snuffed, olives recurrently fished out of martinis.
Literary allusions abound, some surely meaningful mainly to the author, others amusing: Emma Berry conducts romantic liaisons in her moving limousine; and Lilah names the invisible baby in her carriage Linton.
Findley does not finally fulfill his own high ambitions: "Every Kurtz must have his Marlow, and Marlow will always come back to take Kurtz home…. With every journey up the river, we discover that Kurtz has penetrated just a little farther … through darker mysteries."
What Findley locates is more a unique perversion than the universal evil he has promised to explore, mysteries "darker" than Conrad's. The depravity here is too specific to stand as metaphor for the mysteries posed by real, near-ungraspable horrors that have occurred since the original Kurtz appeared: the Holocaust, the slaughter at My Lai, the lingering indifference to AIDS—much more brutal than the sturnusemia Findley imagines—the emergence of "ethnic cleansing," the hundreds of acts of daily brutalities.
Asking why Marlow always appears in order to pursue Kurtz, Findley proposes: "… because he is beholden to Kurtz for having provided him, after darkness, with a way to find new light." Findley does not contribute such "new light" of possible redemption. The relative hopefulness of his ending seems imposed. Despite the fact that his novel succeeds only partially, Findley deserves high praise for his daring to explore grand themes, and to do so in fine, literate writing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
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 book spans a neat half-century, from 1889 to 1939, though the last two decades are rather more quickly traversed. This is a very Findleyesque recasting of the past, a world of shabby gentility whose nearest Canadian relative might be Mazo de la Roche's Jalna (for which Findley wrote the TV adaptation). Whatever its affinities, it is a wonderfully idiosyncratic vision, and it enhances and enriches the way Canadians see themselves.
One of the simplest and most effective ways in which Findley evokes the past is by introducing popular songs of the time. I still find myself humming "Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky …"The reader understands the time and place better for hearing its songs: when you've hummed along with characters, you know a little more of where they come from. Of course the songs also work as reflections of the story, and as part of Lily's very identity:
My mother believed in continuance—in what she called the songs in the blood; but my definition of those songs is far from benign. No child of mine will ever sing Lily's song. Once—for all its marvels—was once too often.
The Piano Man's Daughter is a veritable catalogue of Findley motifs: fire, photos, a search for the past, imprisonment and freedom. One hallmark of the World of Findley, of course, is the presence—indeed centrality—of exiles and outcasts, people who are different, peripheral, delicate. That means Lily, of course, but also, memorably, Lizzie Wyatt, her husband's younger brother, one of those "men so special they had been given women's names." Like all Findley's best writing, this book is rhythmic and lyrical; appropriately, it sings. Here is Charlie on his mother:
I was never Lily's keeper. I was only ever her child and, on occasion, her guardian and, on occasion, her victim and, on occasion, her accomplice. But I was never her keeper. The Keeper in Lily's life was fire. Her jail was her illness, and its key was a box of matches.
Among other things, this is a compellingly readable novel. It opens with a death; and it seems as if each time one mystery is put to bed another springs out. There is a good deal of foreboding. The reader keeps expecting the worst, an expectation that is usually met. The occasions when the clouds clear—as for example in the lovely moment among her Cambridge friends when Lily declares that she is happy—feel like those dangerous moments in real life when you know things are going too well, you know you're about to crash.
One way of looking at the novel is to see it as a series of brilliant set-pieces, as if Findley has imagined with incredible vividness some astonishing tableaux, and then created a narrative that makes sense of them. As a result, the reader assembles the novel's fragments as Charlie assembles the fragments of his past: Ede's first view of the piano man, the kitchen-table surgery, Lizzie waltzing Lily down the canvas rollers of the piano factory.
The story opens in a surreal world and slowly comes to clarity, like the stilling of rough waters. For all the dissolution and dispersal of the conclusion, there is hope for renewal and regeneration. The book moves from not knowing into a degree of knowing, from missing persons to found people, from fragments into a kind of wholeness. In a narrative such as this, the great trick is to weave a conclusion that lives up to the promise of the many mysteries that have been unravelling. The conclusion of The Piano Man's Daughter is completely satisfying without being self-evident; like all the best endings, it is also the beginning of another story.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864
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, war is looming, and his wife, Alexandra, has left him. His mother, Lily, has just died in a fire at a mental institution where she was a patient. As well, Charlie has no idea who his father was. It seems that Lily was not only mad but sexually profligate, and could never remember which of her couplings produced her son. So, with the help of some old photographs and letters. Charlie sets out to reconstruct his mother's life—with the hope of bringing some meaning into his own.
His search leads him to the closing decades of the 19th century, and the prosperous Ontario farm where Lily was born. He discovers that her penchant for making love to strangers was inherited from her mother, Ede Kilworth. Ede, it seems, fell in love with a travelling piano player, Tom Wyatt. She led him into a field that had been special to her as a girl, made love and later gave birth to their daughter, Lily, in the same place. This field—beautifully evoked by Findley with its wildflowers and brooding cows—is her refuge from social and family disapproval, as well as her solace when Tom dies in a trolley-car accident.
Ede's field is both an important symbol and a naturalistic detail woven into the novel's wondrous recreation of late Victorian and Edwardian Canada. For a time, Charlie all but disappears from the story, replaced by Findley's vision of life on the Kilworth farm, and in the big Toronto house where Ede takes her daughter to live after marrying Tom's wealthy brother, Frederick, a manufacturer of pianos. Findley has evoked the spirit of a time and place basking in the late sun of Empire: both its outward confidence and security, and its secret shadows. Lily's stepfather represents the former: he rules his household with a firm paternalism everyone accepts as completely normal, adhering to his demands like trains to a schedule.
The young Lily proves a threat to that tidy world. She is a pyromaniac. She also has violent fits, and when a seizure spoils an important dinner party, Frederick locks her in the attic—the first of several such incarcerations—and later banishes her to a strict boarding school. These two characters are the mythic poles of a tragic imbalance. Frederick embodies an overdeveloped masculine principle, grim and all-controlling, Lily, with her ready sympathy and love of animals, is the repressed feminine. And when the First World War erupts, it is as if Lily's pyromania has taken global revenge.
Those themes are buried in the substructure of the novel. On another, more naturalistic level, Findley's characters are also rounded human beings—here, even Frederick has his more likable side. The Piano Man's Daughter works best when both levels support each other, and that happens most impressively in the first two-thirds of the novel. Here, the story feels deeply, mysteriously organic—propelled by a vast, entirely believable web of relationships, from the sprawling Kilworth and Wyatt families themselves, to the servants who look after their houses and horses, to their cats and dogs and even the ants that live in their gardens.
Much of the novel's final third—which evokes Lily's university days at Cambridge, as well as her itinerant years raising Charlie in a series of boarding houses and hotels—feels attenuated and forced by comparison. Removed from the matrix of her family. Lily's character becomes static, while Charlie's search for his father's identity is not particularly compelling. Yet, Findley recovers in the novel's final, elegiac pages, in which Charlie achieves a deepened understanding of his mother's suffering. Here, too, he reconnects with his wife, and together they renew their hopes for the future. The reader last glimpses the characters in the field where Lily was conceived and born: it makes a moving conclusion to a novel that reaches memorably into that crucible of origins and losses we call the past.