Critical Context

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Since Ernest Hemingway wrote the first modern war novel in 1929, only Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) has matched it in innovative style and technique as well as in seriousness of intent. Timothy Findley’s The Wars marks another entry into this select group.

This is not a minor genre, for the first entry would have to be Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 B.C.). The Song of Roland (c. 1100) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) are notable medieval samples of the genre. By the nineteenth century, war novels such as The Red and the Black (1830) by Stendahl and War and Peace (1865-1869) by Leo Tolstoy set the standards for all-encompassing, but very heavy and lengthy, narrative tales. Hemingway—and Stephen Crane before him, with The Red Badge of Courage (1895)—eliminating much narrative, sought to establish intensity and power by a narrowing of focus, ignoring the home front, families, and friends. Findley manages, through technical prowess, to combine Hemingway-like choices of clear moments of searing horror and truth at the battlefront with scenes depicting the effects of war on the families and lovers of the soldiers. Thus, he achieves the complexities of earlier war novels without sacrificing economy or intensity.

Some of the techniques which make this possible clearly reflect Findley’s background in writing for television and the stage, but here such techniques are fused by his experience in writing two previously published novels and confirmed by his performance in the equally innovative, provocative, and acclaimed novel on World War II, Famous Last Words (1981). The Wars deservedly has achieved tremendous popular and critical success. Findley makes one see, feel, and hear anew, leaving indelible images and reverberations in the reader’s mind and heart.

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