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Timothy Findley 1930–
Canadian novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter.
With each of his books, Findley has more firmly established his place among Canada's important contemporary writers. Ambitious in his choice of themes and innovative in his handling of them, he writes of the human struggle against fate and questions the nature of self, love, and reality. Findley has examined these concerns from several different perspectives beginning with The Last of the Crazy People (1967). In this work, Findley portrays the life of a lonely and bewildered young boy whose tragic destiny is to murder his family.
Findley's most successful novel, The Wars, published in the United States in 1978, won the Governor General's Award in 1977. Written in a documentary style, it recounts the story of Robert Ross, an officer in the Canadian army during World War I. Findley here attempts to show that Ross's eventual death is both futile and triumphant. The Wars is described as a powerful account of how war simultaneously defines and destroys personality.
Famous Last Words (1982) is also related to war. In this novel, Findley molds Ezra Pound's poetic figure Hugh Selwyn Mauberley into a fully formed fictional character and traces his fascination with and involvement in fascist politics. Although described as flawed, many critics appraise Famous Last Words as an ambitious work that raises serious questions about the effects of political corruption and the meaning of history.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
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["The Last of the Crazy People"] is almost as pleasing as its odd title. An attempt to explain the far too frequent and inexplicable headline, "'Nice Boy' Massacres Family," it is memorable not so much for its explanation (or for its gore) as for a surprisingly gentle, nostalgic quality which is wholly charming. Story and style may seem at variance, but I look forward to Findley's second.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "The Last of the Crazy People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 16, 1967, p. 14.
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Like Ben Piazza, who three years ago wrote a moving first novel about boyhood called The Exact and Very Strange Truth, Timothy Findley is an actor. Again like Piazza, he is interested in boyhood and its relationship to the adult world, and he has an actor's ear for dialogue, an actor's eye for scenes. After three years, scenes from the earlier book remain vivid in the mind; it is probable that those created by Mr. Findley [in The Last of the Crazy People] will also linger for a long time, if less happily.The first scene sets the mood, and almost—but not quite—tells us what is to happen. It is early September, after a rainless summer. An eleven-year-old boy carrying a box tiptoes out of his house in the dawn, crosses the back yard to the stable, climbs into the loft, and settles down in the straw by the half-open bale door overlooking the back of the house. The box is beside him, and so is his cat, Little Bones, whose "deadly, vibrant, yet clouded" eyes resemble his own. Together they wait and are still.
We gather from every careful word of this prologue that the boy is insane and about to do something terrible. The rest of the book, flashing back to the beginning of that hot Canadian summer, tells us of the events that have led inexorably to this September morning and of the people who contributed to them. And as we come to know the members of young Hooker Winslow's family and the middle-class community in which they exist, we begin to see that his inevitable tragedy is triggered not by one cause but by many, stress upon stress. (p. 36)
Only Iris, the Negro maid, takes any interest in the lonely boy or the pet cats who are his sole companions. But … not even Iris, with all her good will, can answer Hooker's inchoate questions; nor is there any help, he finds, in the bewildering adult world outside. "In all houses, all families, was it true that no one really loved?" Hooker wonders near the end. It is no surprise that his final act seems like ultimate sanity.
The Last of the Crazy People is not light summer reading. But it says something important, and says it with both craftsmanship and compassion. (p. 37)
Margaret Parton, "A Sad Song of Eleven Summers," in Saturday Review (© 1967 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. L. No. 31, August 5, 1967, pp. 36-7.
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1930's Hollywood, with its overripe stars, larger-than-life styles, extravagant successes and even more extravagant failures, and the nightmare barbarities of Hitler's Germany, make a strange juxtaposition here. "The Butterfly Plague" is full of unlikely juxtapositions, but they work to make the book consistently interesting, often disquieting, Mr. Findley's novel is an ambitious one, for he has chosen to deal with the nature of reality, the meaning of life and death and love, and the future of the human race. Despite a style and setting that sometimes verge on the campy, his unique way of perceiving people and places gives his book considerable power. "The Butterfly Plague" is mostly populated by grotesques, including a former Olympic medal swimmer who is a carrier of haemophilia and who is married to a virulent master-race Nazi; her brother; a Hollywood director; and her mother, dying of cancer. All of these people and some other Hollywood types drift in and out of one another's lives and nightmares, and what emerges is a disturbing picture of man's despair.
A review of "The Butterfly Plague," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 10, 1969 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1969 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 195, No. 6, February 10, 1969, p. 72.
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[The Butterfly Plague] resembles an appreciative description of a fantastic film, the kind that depends on surrealistic images and a voguish "sense of period", more interesting to see than to read about…. A quick succession of intricate, brightly-coloured scenes must have been the aim; but Timothy Findley cannot, as a novelist, rival a film-director's pace. Instead of being fixed in cinematic images, the details of landscape, facial expression, physical appearance and (especially) clothing have to be set out in lists, as if they were instructions to the property department, the designer and the wardrobe mistress. Thus the novel proceeds more slowly than can have been intended.
The setting is Southern California, 1938, with flashbacks to Nazi Germany. The mood is one of fear, with epicene women and men wincing at hazards as normal as motor accidents or as nightmarish as Nazidom….
[Many disasters occur to] bizarre characters. Miss Trainer, a motor-cycling nurse, discovers a lady in "rather old-maidish drawers" and lisle stockings, hanging from a tree, "with a black-handled knife inserted in her vagina". Miss Trainer swoons away—but the cold-blooded reader will be less perturbed, since this atrocity seems, like so much in the book, to be presented rather for its pictorial value than for any literary purpose. Occasionally there is a flicker of Firbank in the writing; but, generally, the book is too stodgy, long-winded and mirthless to make the comparison worthwhile.
"Uncomic Strip," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3549, March 5, 1970, p. 241.
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We no longer believe that some subjects are more appropriate for literary treatment than others: nowadays, every human activity, no matter how banal or disgusting, offers itself as legitimate material for the imagination to work on and turn into art…. There seem to be some subjects, however, which have a built-in intransigence to literary treatment because their historical reality, overwhelmingly banal, perhaps, or overwhelmingly disgusting, surpasses anything that the creative imagination can make of them. Writers instinctively shun these topics, it seems to me, and rightly so. It takes considerable nerve, therefore, to do what Timothy Findley has done [in The Wars]—to write a novel squarely about the unspeakable reality of the 1914–18 war in order to make that reality even more unspeakably real. Having read it, we're meant to put his book down angered and disgusted once again by the sheer futility of those four years, with the additional wrenching caused by our concern for the fate of the book's fictional Canadian hero, Robert Ross.
It's plain that Findley realizes he's dealing with intractable material because he camouflages the fiction of his story by pretending that the novel is a species of historical document, taking as its subject the life of Robert Ross, piecing it together from tape-recorded interviews, press-cuttings from the archives, old photographs, diaries, and the like. This technique enables Findley to intersperse his fictional account with grim and telling statistics about the war itself, though, in fact, the greater part of the book is a conventional third-person narrative, a novel, telling the story of its central character more or less straightforwardly as countless novels have done and will no doubt continue to do. But does the story of Robert Ross match, or add to, or make even more dire, the tragedy of which he is a tiny (though not necessarily insignificant) part? At best, it seems to only fitfully: there's frequently such a sense of strain in the telling of his tale that the insertion of those cold statistics from the greater drama makes his own biography seem forced and untrue.
Part of the trouble must lie in the clipped, portentous style that Findley chooses for most of the book's scenes whether or not they take place on the battlefield…. [The] dominant style of the book [is] obtrusively unobtrusive, especially in moments of crisis such as the death of Rowena, the revelation about Taffler and the Swede, or the various deaths on the battlefield…. At moments like these the book's Hemingwayesque style pitches over into sentimentality.
To describe the style of The Wars as sentimental is the closest I can come to conveying the cumulative effect of the novel's various crises rendered in this flattened, yet oddly apocalyptic, manner. Such a style takes its toll of the characters. Much of the time they exist in the shadows, wraiths, dream-figures caught fleetingly in various postures, their behaviour difficult to understand except that it in some way reflects the exigencies of their time. Distant eccentrics is the description that springs to mind—like Robert's mother and the appalling Lady Barbara d'Orsey with whom Robert falls in love. Robert himself is a hero in the silent tradition, more acted upon than acting, chief victim perhaps of the book's style…. [The] novel demands our anguished sympathy without really having done enough to earn it. (pp. 173-74)
Michael Taylor, in a review of "The Wars" (copyright by Michael Taylor; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Fiddlehead, No. 118, Summer, 1978, pp. 173-74.
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Timothy Findley's "The Wars" is … elegantly written and structured and well aware of what can't be said about important human experiences. (Like other Canadian writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and Marian Engel, Mr. Findley seems closer and more responsive to natural mystery than his peers south of the border.) (p. 14)
The book has flaws, certainly. Its rather poetic prose sometimes turns overripe. Its climactic moment—when Ross disobeys orders, shoots his commander and leads a herd of panicky horses to what turns out to be their death in a burning barn—is over-prepared for by insistent imagery of horses and fires….
But for the most part "The Wars" is an impressively sustained meditation on how war crystallizes an unfinished personality even while destroying it, and on how the past remains available and valuable only in our ability to reinvent and reinterpret it. Ross's terrible story is also a terribly beautiful one, and it shows that Timothy Findley is a writer worth keeping an eye on. (p. 26)
Thomas R. Edwards, "The Grim War and the Great War," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 9, 1978, pp. 14, 26.∗
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[Brevity] is disastrous in the hands of Timothy Findley. In fact understatement of a very slick and ineffective sort is chronically recurrent in The Wars…. The story is well told, the scenes follow each other with sure logic, and, with one or two exceptions, the thematic interest arises naturally from the events instead of being forced.
The stylistic slickness of which I complained consists mainly of the frequent use of telegraphic one-liners (which one reviewer has associated—I think wrongly—with Hemingway) and typographical cleverness obviously calculated to bring the reader to the edge of his seat. (Two-word sentences. One-word paragraphs. Triple spacing. The works.) Another "special effect" is the studied sensitivity of the prose that occasionally emerges, especially toward the end of the book…. Cheap attempts to add intensity or beauty are never less welcome than when they are unnecessary, as they are here. When the author forgets to be "creative," his prose is entirely adequate to the task, and the intensity and beauty take care of themselves. The book is in any case a substantial performance, and I do not want to make it sound trivial…. [Findley] has overcome heavy odds by writing a convincing historical novel about an event which has been so momentous—and ultimately so inaccessible—as the war which all of us who call ourselves "modern" have come to see as our point of origin. (pp. xxi-xxii)
Gary T. Davenport, "A Canadian Miscellany," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. xix-xxii.∗
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In Timothy Findley's novel The Wars, Robert Ross, soon after arriving in Europe, finds himself leading a line of horses through thick green fog. The foul smell of the air puzzles him, but Poole, his batman, detects the odour of chlorine that has soaked into the ground.
The smell was unnerving—as if some presence were lurking in the fog like a dragon in a story. Poole was quite correct; the ground was saturated with gas. Chlorine and phosgene were currently both in use. Mustard gas was still to come.
This matter-of-fact chemical information is typical of the novel's verisimilitude. An almost documentary realism seems to seduce the reader into accepting the authenticity of the account. By mentioning "a dragon in a story," however, the narrator teases us with a glimpse of another, more truly seductive influence. Behind the elaborate realism of The Wars hides the beguiling shape of myth and legend—the dragon that lurks in the fog.
Northrop Frye finds the essential principles of story-telling in mythology; those structural principles are "displaced" from mythology to literature. What kind of displaced mythology would we expect to find in Findley's novel? The Wars is a work of irony; in it we see the attempt, as Frye says in Anatomy of Criticism, "to give form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized existence." He goes on to say, "As structure, the central principle of ironic myth is best approached as a parody of romance: the application of romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content which fits them in unexpected ways." A dragon's proper home, of course, is the world of romance; if he can be displaced into the world of "unidealized existence," perhaps other aspects of his home-world have made their way with him. Following this lead, I intend to examine The Wars as a "parody of romance." (p. 70)
Adventure is the essential element of plot in romance, and in a naive form romance can be the story of a hero who dies in the glory of combat or who undergoes a series of exciting adventures and always comes back for more, like a comic book hero. There are plenty of children in the novel who see war this way. They range from Robert's younger brother, thrilled to announce at school that Robert would receive the Victoria Cross, to boys arriving at the front, exhiliarated by the "heavensent chance" to become men. (pp. 70-1)
The true romantic hero begins in innocence and journeys in quest of knowledge. A wise old guardian may supervise the initiation, as do Arthur's Merlin and Dante's Virgil. Robert's innocence lies in the fact that killing is "a foreign state of mind" for him. He needs "someone who could teach him, by example, how to kill" and thinks he has found such a person in the legendary Eugene Taffler, an older man who has already journeyed to war and back; ironically, this nearly mythic figure turns out to practise sexual perversions and later attempts suicide….
Robert's initiations and loss of innocence remind us that we expect life to have four seasons—youth, maturity, age, and death—but part of the horror of The Wars is the realization that this natural cycle has been drastically accelerated. We expect young men in romances to face challenging ordeals and life-changing epiphanies, but in this novel too many men face dead-end ordeals and learn too much too soon. We see this in the constant emphasis on the childishness of the characters: "men" whose average age is nineteen, some of whom do not yet shave and whose voices still waver, who promise their mothers not to drink and who soil their pants in moments of crisis. (p. 71)
A variation of the innocence theme appears in the hero's pure love for a damsel—love, like adventure, being one of the keynotes of romance. In one version, the hero leaves a chaste lady, has adventures, and returns to marriage. In another form, often focusing on a sister or daughter figure, the journey ends in virginity. The chastity of the latter quest may thinly disguise a latently incestuous relationship; the chaste love of brother for sister may represent a lost Golden Age but may also hover near a moral taboo (virtue being most admirable when closely pressed by temptation).
In the case of Robert Ross, the catalyst for the story is his love for his sister Rowena; "Rowena," we may remember, is the name of one of the heroines in Ivanhoe. Robert often remembers her in critical moments of the war. She represents a lost happy time: he remembers her with her rabbits, or the idyllic sound of lapping water as they vacationed at Jackson's Point. (p. 72)
Romances often begin with a knight riding off into a forest after an animal, an image which is never very far from metamorphosis, the changing of the hunter into an animal. Near the beginning of the book, Robert goes for a long run with a coyote. The two enjoy a special communion, both drinking from a river in the prairie. Robert becomes oddly identified with the animal as he crouches "on his haunches" watching it. When confined to barracks for two weeks, he sits like a caged and lonely animal on the roof and stares across the prairie, "wishing that someone would howl." Metamorphosis, or the union of human and animal identities, is an important theme in The Wars…. Metamorphosis in romance often indicates a lowering of human identity as the hero obscures the signs of original identity and joins a lower world of animals. In The Wars, it is a lowering in the sense that the humans are trapped and frightened like the animals, but the fellow-feeling with animals is also part of the human largeness and generosity of characters like Rodwell and Robert. To recognize oneself as an animal is to recognize one's kinship with and duty towards all life, a recognition threatened by the "ethics" of war.
The changing of humans into animals occurs specifically in those romances concerned with the descent of the hero, and The Wars is primarily the story of a journey into a lower world, although there are points of ascent. Ascents in romance typically involve an epiphany at a mountaintop, tower, or staircase. Since the ascent reverses the Fall of Man, it is not surprising that the goal is often a new Eden, a locus amoenus or "beautiful green world." (pp. 73-4)
[A] subtle image of ascent occurs when Robert and his men climb into a giant crater to cut gun beds. It is hard to find images of upward movement in the flatlands of Europe, and the crater is most obviously an image of descent, but Findley gets double service from this crater by making it an ironically inverted mountain…. As the men clamber out of the crater, they might as well be mountain climbing, with the "sound of falling debris" and the treacherous slipping backwards, "sliding in the snow." At the top of this climb is a vestigial locus amoenus, for in the midst of all the mud is a singing bird and an enemy soldier who has laid aside his weapon in order to watch the bird. At the peak. Robert shoots the soldier and then has a devastating epiphany: the man he has killed had no intention of killing him.
Images of descent are, of course, richly elaborated and to prepare for descent, one needs a talisman, such as a golden bough. For Robert it is his pistol, which gives him the "ritual edge in authority," not so much from the enemy as from his own men in the nightmare world they enter. (p. 74)
The lower world is a form of hell, a night world, a subterranean world where the shapes of animals swarm upon the hero…. More than anything else, hell is full of dead people, and surely our main impression of the battlefront is that it is a world full of corpses. At times this vision of hell frankly becomes a vision of the Apocalypse, as when flame-throwers unleash fire storms, men explode from combustion, horses rear "with their bones on fire," and the earth is "seared and sealed with fire."
Earth and air are man's natural elements. The romantic hero journeying to another world must pass ordeals of the other two elements, fire and water, just as Dante must pass through a ring of fire and the river of Eden. (p. 75)
The whole area of the battlefield is "well below sea level" and the men fight in "a shallow sea of stinking grey from end to end" where men and horses drown in mud. Robert's ordeal by water comes when he slips off a dike and nearly drowns. It becomes important to find ways of living with water. Robert appears to love Harris, who tells stories about feeling at home in water, and Rodwell's toad survives a gas attack by staying in a pail of water: "It was a matter, Rodwell had said, of your element. The toad has a choice."
The world of fire can be a destructive world of malignant demons, such as the enemy's fire storms, but it can also be a cleansing purgatorial fire. Both connotations apply to Robert's ordeal by fire in the burning barn. It shows the stupid destructiveness of the war world; it is also a gateway by which Robert rises to a higher level of heroism….
[The] life-assertive statements that appear throughout the book insist that there is … triumph in Robert's end: the epigraph from Euripides, for example—"Never that which is shall die"—or Rodwell's last letter to his daughter—"Everything lives forever"—or Robert's reply to the nurse who, "ashamed of life," offers to help him die:
'Not yet.' Not yet….
"Not yet" are the words of a man who had been profoundly educated by his journey to the lower world. He fully knows the presence of death and he holds onto life. Knowledge of death feeds this human impulse to survive. When the hero fights the dragon to get at the secret treasure hoard, the real wealth is a wealth of wisdom, which is often wisdom about death…. (p. 76)
[Robert] finds a way out of the underworld, a way to survive: a radical act of individuality. The act leaves him physically scarred, of course, but heroes from Oedipus on have known that mutilation is often the price of great wisdom. Although the individualizing act, saving the horses, returns Robert to a full compassion for life, it necessitates the destruction of life—the killing of Captain Leather. This paradox is what Frye calls "a return that achieves its recreation by a creatively negative act."… Unfortunately, "creatively negative" acts do not stand up well in the courts. One of the motifs of romance is the trial founded on a mistaken or narrow-minded charge or a wrong identity; the hero escapes by revealing his true identity. The Robert who shot Captain Leather was a man making a desperate last gesture to pull himself out of the lower world of war in order to recreate his own identity. Once that identity is recreated, he is no longer the same man. Thus, Robert's trial is, in fact, the trial of a "wrong identity" and it is poetically appropriate that he be tried "in absentia" and allowed to return to St. Aubyn's for convalescent treatment.
The return to St. Aubyn's is, of course, a return to Eden. As romance moves to a world of original identity, the symbolism of the garden of Eden reappears…. Robert can never return to his first Eden: Rowena and her rabbits are dead. The last picture taken during his life shows, however, that Robert has achieved a new Eden. Juliet d'Orsey loves him; they are together in St. Aubyn's; he holds her hand and "he is smiling." Juliet, who even as an old woman maintains a child's wisdom, becomes a substitute for Rowena.
This identification is made even more clearly in the epilogue. We see one more picture which echoes the earlier picture of Robert linked to Juliet, and this is "the last thing you see before you put on your overcoat":
Robert and Rowena and 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.
The hero brings the end of his quest in line with the beginning; the circle closes. (pp. 78-9)
[It] is clear that while The Wars' realistic details generate part of its appeal and effectiveness, the way in which those details are given imaginative impact goes beyond the effects of verisimilitude. We demand that historic and geographic "facts" be given a "shape" to contain them. The situation of the narrator in this novel mirrors this fundamental issue in fiction: he has only a few photographic images which, by themselves, say little. His task—"your" task—is to take those few facts and pictures and find their meaning. To find the meaning of the pictures, to discover the imaginative impact of realistic details, the story-teller must be a master of the basic principles of story-telling—principles which give shape to human experience, and which are as old as myth and legend. (p. 79)
Bruce Pirie, "The Dragon in the Fog: 'Displaced Mythology' in 'The Wars'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 91, Winter, 1981, pp. 70-9.
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[The protagonist of Pound's modernist poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"] is the main character—initially, at least—in Timothy Findley's new novel, Famous Last Words. Immediately, one recognizes it as a brilliant idea that sparks a variety of possibilities in the reader's imagination. Findley has re-invented Mauberley for his own purposes, making him a younger man than Pound's, American, and a novelist. But any artist—according to Brecht, anyway—has the right to steal another man's work, provided he transforms it in the process. And it's in that transformation that the roots of our initial excitement grow. Pound's Mauberley was a symptom of a world that had apparently been wiped out by the First World War. Findley revives him and uses him to examine the way in which that old world of class and style had not been eliminated after all, but went on clinging to its power with increasing avidity for another 20 years or more. (Even now, has its grip been broken?) Naturally enough, Findley's Mauberley, like Pound, is drawn to fascism, but a fascism attenuated and sweetened by the desire to reconcile itself to the pretences and subtleties of an older aristocratic tradition. The Duke of Windsor for Führer?!
The concept is a fine one. It affords Findley the freedom to move easily between the old hypocrisies and the new barbarism that was replacing them in the 1930s. In the process there's a lovely, wicked irony: that Pound's alter ego, whom he had used to liberate himself from the past, should now be used to expose the political falsehoods that he in his own due course was seduced by.
One's appreciation of Findley's cleverness may be so great that one suppresses the inevitable question that has to be put to it—at least, until much later in the novel. What is the necessary relationship of Findley to Mauberley? In Pound's case, the relationship was clear. Mauberley was the mask Pound might have become, and by writing about him, by making him a character in a poem that Mauberley could never have constructed in its entirety, Pound was able to make the separation complete. But why does Findley need this Mauberley he creates? Who is Mauberley to him? Or to us? It's only as the novel progresses, and as our dissatisfaction with it grows, that these suspended questions force their way back into our consciousness…. (p. 9)
At the start of the novel … there is [a] perfectly conceived metaphor for the role of the artist in a modern social context. It's a metaphor that is at one and the same time melodramatic and satirical, and it gives Findley a remarkable freedom to manoeuvre among the various trajectories of his narrative. Yet from that point on he seems to lose his grip on the intertwined themes that he has shown to be so potentially interesting. Or to be able to grip only one thread at a time while the others dangle loose.
I write those words hesitantly. This is an ambitious novel and Findley is a serious writer. The probability is that his readers will misunderstand what he is doing. A novel that starts from the intricate social and psychological puzzle of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" will be likely to mislead us, may do so even with glee. We cannot expect its fragments to build themselves brick by brick into a load-bearing arch. The arch will be an illusion created by contradictory free-standing shapes, and when we shift our position slightly it will disappear.
Moreover, a novel such as Famous Last Words is not simply an intellectual experiment. It has bifurcating purposes, taking as it does a tale of intrigue and wartime espionage and disrupting it so as to open it up to the light of analysis. The adventure novel is a form that reconciles a middle-class audience to the suppressed horror of the world it rests on. Findley is clearly concerned to break that form in such a way that the violence he so passionately abhors will flood back into it.
All that is clear. But not, finally, in this novel. I hold it up to the light and try to see through it. I look into it from different angles. I leave it on its own and walk out along the edge of the lake, turning my back on it, hoping to catch to catch it off guard when I swing round and…. And still it doesn't work. A novel like this deserves the benefit of every doubt. Every doubt except the last. In the end the doubt envelops it all.
There are three main threads that Findley draws out of the superb symbolic knot he has tied for us at the beginning. One, recounted in the first person, is the strand of Mauberley's personal reminiscence as he recalls the bewildered way in which he shuffled headlong into the elegant and vicious half-world of right-wing politics. Mauberley himself is hollow, and there is little real interest either in his political conversion or in his belated consciousness of what it entailed. As the novel progresses, his plight loses much of our attention. That in itself is not necessarily a fault. There are many novels, after all, that have nonentities at their centres, and Pound's Mauberley was just such a devitalized bore. But Pound's Mauberley implied by indirection another kind of dynamics altogether. Findley's does not.
The second thread is the tale of botched high politics that Mauberley recounts: the plot to capture Wallis Simpson and her waxwork husband, the Duke of Windsor, and to transform them into the saviours of fascist Europe. The telling itself is suspect in that one never senses the presence of Mauberley the narrator behind it. But that would only be a significant fault in a realist novel, which this is not. The story, in some of its parts, is brilliantly handled with fine set-pieces of absurdity and flaring horror. The relationship between the ex-king and his despotic mother, Queen Mary, seems at times to be the one real emotional experience in the whole book. Yet one wonders constantly why it needs Mauberley to tell it at all.
The final narrative thread is the present description of the soldiers who occupy the hotel and of their conflicts and dreams about what they find there. In many ways, this is the most achieved aspect of the novel. It is surrealistic and satirical simultaneously, and one finds onself wishing there were more of it, since it might well provide the focus that could hold the novel's divergencies together. But Findley seems particularly constrained in these scenes, hardly ever giving them a free enough rein to establish a developed relationship with the rest of the plot.
So we are left with fragments, many of them very fine indeed, a few rather dull and pedestrian in their attempts at historical interpretation. But fragments, in sum, that don't mesh or even point significantly toward each other. There is neither a meaningful argument nor a convincingly imagined interdependence between them. The novel, in consequence, does not lead to any new insights either into the social and psychological forces that made fascism such a demanding necessity in the 1930s, or into the relationship of those forces to the pressures of our own world. Findley affords us some fascinating glimpses of the effects of political perversion; he leaves the causes hidden. (pp. 10-11)
Ian McLachlan, "Not the Full Smile" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books in Canada, Vol. 10, No. 10, December, 1981, pp. 9-11.
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Ezra Pound in his poem sequence "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" claimed that "The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, / Something for the modern stage." With benefit of a hindsight denied to Pound, Timothy Findley in Famous Last Words takes up the challenge in a "prose cinema" of dazzling brilliance. Like his earlier novel The Wars, the story revolves around a man trapped in wartime events. Transforming Pound's poetic persona Hugh Mauberley into a plausible fictional character, Findley probes the meaning of history with such insight and skill that Famous Last Words becomes a leap forward in his work….
Through his uncanny descriptive powers, Findley moves outward from a base of facts to convey an atmosphere in which the "porcelain revery" of Pound's Mauberley poems is finally shattered as the civilized world cracks apart. (p. 53)
In a novel of wider scope than anything he has yet attempted, Findley uses Mauberley to demonstrate that all it takes for evil to triumph is that men of conscience stand silent. Mauberley, like all men, must resist the evil he sees and feels not only around him but inside him….
Although Famous Last Words is based on well-documented events gleaned from a range of sources—Frances Donaldson's Edward VIII, Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, and James Pope-Hennessey's Queen Mary, among others—fact ultimately rallies to the side of fiction. What Findley knows defers always to what he has sensed. By according his own imagination the highest authority, he recreates history in terms that bring it uncomfortably close to us. But he keeps us always slightly off-balance, leaving us just uncertain enough to question our own hold on reality. Those electric moments of history, like blurred camera frames suddenly springing into focus, bring us face to face with our own souls. The result is a novel of the first magnitude: Sophoclean in power, certain in craft, and hauntingly beautiful. (p. 54)
Elspeth Cameron, "After the Wars" (copyright © 1982 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 97, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 53-4.