The Wars by Timothy Findley (Penguin Books 1978) is an extraordinary story that unravels what happened to one soldier, Robert Ross, in the Magdalene Wood in the First World War; and running counterpoint to his story is that of “you,” the narrator who does the unravelling: “you” seek answers from people guarded by nurses, “you” begin your research “at the archives with photographs.” (p. 11). The first image that “you” reports is of Robert on a horse, “mud on his cheeks and forehead and his uniform is burning — long bright tails of flame are steaming out behind him.” p. 13
Even a scene as intimate as Robert’s mother visiting him in the bath is mediated by the narrator: “If Robert had turned to look, the expression on her face might have frightened him. Yet people tend to look most often like themselves when no one else is watching.” (p. 27) .
Unable to kill his dead sister’s rabbits, Robert Ross holds back from the others when he joins the 30th Battery C.F.A. in 1915, searching for “someone who could teach him, by example, how to kill.” p. 28 He finds his model killer in Eugene Taffler; Taffler remains remote from Ross yet serves as a crucial link to later events.
While Findley doesn’t dwell on the suffering of horses working in the war, he notes such things as only 15 of 100 horses survived an aerial bombardment, along with 23 of 60 men. (The Wars predates Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse.) If we ask what causes Robert Ross to be “consumed by fire” in the Magdalene Wood, horses are part of the answer — as well as absurd commands, and human error. And above all, revulsion for the war. This novel could be considered anti-war, and might serve as a justification for those who would turn their backs on Remembrance Day, except that it asks us to remember in excruciating detail what those young men suffered on our behalf.
Here is a description of Robert Ross checking a trench after a bombardment; his way is impeded by dead bodies, nor have all the wounded yet been removed.
“The trench was like a tunnel with a black heavy layer of smoke as its roof. … Robert’s footsteps and the water oozing from the wrung-ought earth fell into puddles loud as clocks.
All at once there was a blast of cold air. …
The end of the trench had been completely rolled back and the earth folded over, packed with bits of timber and corrugated iron. There were also sizzling braziers, wheels, tin hats, and blasted sand bags — backs that must’ve been men.” (p. 119)
In Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2020), Sherrill Grace suggests several inspirations for The Wars. Citing Findley’s memoir, Inside Memory, she mentions that November 11 was for him a day to remember his uncle, Lt. Thomas Irving Findley (p 14) and that his uncle Tif was “a major inspiration for The Wars.” (p. 18) Grace pinpoints Findley’s loathing for war to a trip to Berlin when he was 24, in 1954, when he was acting in Matchmaker on tour. His devastation at the lingering evidence of war, such as piles of rubble and missing buildings, is cited twice: once from a letter to his family, and once from his journal. Grace acknowledges that the journal entry is more emotional and more negative than the letter, and concludes that what Findley saw in Berlin “deepened his anger considerably, not simply about the death and destruction incurred in a war, but more importantly with the politicians who fomented wars, with the industrialists who profited, and with the average person who refused to think for himself. In the broadest sense, he saw war as the annihilation of all that is creative in life.” p. 120
The trip to Berlin came in the midst of Findley’s time in England, where he had gone to study acting. In England, too, the wars are more physically evident. Stuck at home one New Year’s Eve, he listened to a BBC broadcast about the First World War, and was taken by individual reminiscences of 1914.
Grace also discusses the importance of place in Findley’s works. Rosedale, where he grew up in Toronto, permeates his novels The Last of the Crazy People, Headhunter, The Piano Man’s Daughter and You Went Away. The beach of a former hotel in Maine is the setting of The Telling of Lies, and the beach at Dieppe is the setting in the story “Stones.” Cotignac and southern France set the short story “The Madonna of the Cherry Trees.” Stone Orchard, south of Lake Simcoe near the town of Cannington, where Findley lived with his partner Bill Whitehead lived for 33 years, became the subject of its own book: From Stone Orchard: A Collection of Memories. Grace notes:
“He was never a Canadian writer in a narrow or nationalistic sense; however, he was inseparable from his homes: Rosedale, Stone Orchard, and the fields and roads around Cannington.” (p. 22)
Findley’s years abroad began and ended with illness. In July 1950, he was sent to France and then Switzerland “for recuperation” from illnesses and nervous breakdown. (p. 406) Following an acting stint in Stratford, Findley went to England from 1953-1956 to pursue an acting career. His time abroad was cut short in 2002: following hospitalization in Stratford for a week in February, less than six months after having had pneumonia, he and his partner left in late March for their house in Cotignac, France, a home that they shared for eight years. At end of March, Findley fell and cracked his pelvis, which was then infected; he was in hospital in Brignoles, then transferred to Toulon, where he died on June 21.
In comparison to my monastic lifestyle right now, Timothy Findley seems to have got in several lives’ worth of living: after leaving school in grade 10, he was a manual labourer, ballet student, actor, author, and mentor. He acted in the first production at the opening of the Stratford Festival and was a founder of the Writer’s Union of Canada. While struggling as an actor in London, while fighting off lifelong despair, he met the people who encouraged him to write, and it was in London that he wrote his first short stories. Ambitious from the beginning, Findley was honoured for his work. The Wars won the Governor General’s Literary Award, and it was made into a film in 1983 with stars Brent Carver, William Hutt and Martha Henry, including parts for Ann-Marie MacDonald and Barbara Budd.
Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley is everything that you want a biography to be: it includes an acknowledgement of sources, a table of contents, photos, a chronology of the author’s life, notes, a bibliography, an index. An index! Increasingly I find books missing the table of contents, never mind the luxury of an index. And the tone is perfect: Sherrill Grace is no sycophant, but a biographer who applies her intelligence to the everlasting mystery of how a talent becomes great. One of Canada’s best authors, Findley is deserving of the respect that Grace grants him, as she is deserving of her subject. Her prose is clear, precise, yet intimate. I have often wondered if biographers are deceived by the half-truths and venting rants of a writer’s journals, and Grace proves that this is not the case: she researches thoroughly, comparing letters and journals, and comparing those in turn with interviews and archival research. Nor does she leave details hanging uselessly, instead drawing conclusions that the reader may not have reached. She never lingers too long on any one point, and steps away at the precise moment the reader’s attention starts to wander, leading us on in our understanding of one man’s complex life. I have not read Findley’s memoirs, but I can recommend this biography, particularly as it ends on a much needed note of hope.
Timothy Findley, The Wars: Clarke Irwin 1977; rpt Penguin Books 1978.
Sherrill Grace, Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2020, hardcover.
Timothy Findley, The Last of the Crazy People, 1967
The Butterfly Plague, 1969
Famous Last Words, 1981
Not Wanted on the Voyage, 1984
The Telling of Lies, 1986
The Piano Man’s Daughter, 1995
For a full list of Findley’s work, go to Athabasca University.