In 2001, Findley was photographed in Paris where he discussing his novel Pilgrim at the Canadian Cultural Centre. Photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
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Essential Timothy Findley
Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley is finally getting his due almost 20 years after his death / BY Athena McKenzie / November 1st, 2020
The first full account of Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley gives credit where it’s due and shows how Tiff’s themes – environmental degradation, mental health, human rights and the insanity of war, to name a few – are as relevant today as they were when his words were published in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It took UBC prof Sherrill Grace 10 years to produce Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley, using diaries and extensive interviews to delve into Findley’s life, from his early career as an actor in London, England – where he was a protégé of Alec Guinness – to his years honing his craft as a writer.
When he died in 2002, Findley had written 10 novels, a memoir, three collections of short stories and several plays and screenplays. For decades, his works were required reading in high school and university English classes, and he was integral to the development of Can Lit and the Canadian publishing scene.
As his commendation to Canada’s Walk of Fame notes: “Findley believed that a writer has a responsibility to speak out about what is wrong with society.”
To mark what would have been his 90th birthday this year (on Oct. 30), we’ve compiled a list of his essential works.
More than a decade, and several novels, into his writing career, The Wars (1977) vaulted Findley into the upper stratosphere of the Canadian literary scene. Drawing on family stories and the experiences and journals of his uncle Irving (known as TIF), Findley captures something unforgettable in his depiction of the Great War – a heartbreaking account of courage, honour and loss. Arguably his best-known novel and required reading on many an English literature syllabus, The Wars won the Governor-General’s Award for fiction.
The Big Three
Following the success of The Wars, Findley moved from strength to strength with his next three novels, each wholly distinct in subject matter and approach, yet each unmistakably the product of Findley’s fertile imagination.
Famous Last Words (1981) is the final testimony of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, as scrawled on the walls of a deserted hotel in the Austrian Alps, recovered and recorded by two American soldiers. While Mauberley is an imagined character, borrowed from the poetry of Ezra Pound, the novel revolves around historical figures such as the Duke and Duchess of Winsor, Rudolf Hess and Charles Lindbergh, all fascist sympathizers or supporters joined in a conspiracy to control the world after Hitler completes his conquest of Europe.
Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) rewinds even further in time to retell the story of Noah and the ark, with a magical-realism bent and a contemporary setting. To be clear, this is not a story for Sunday school. Instead of the cheerful tropes (the animals marching in two by two, for example), Findley digs deep into the imagined psychological depths of the animals in a novel that is often violent and always surprising.
With The Telling of Lies (1986), Findley shifted to what seems to be a fairly traditional mystery. When pharmaceutical maven Calder Maddox is found dead near the Aurora Sands Hotel in coastal Maine, everyone is a suspect, and it falls to amateur detective Vanessa Van Horne to solve the case. The mystery is so well handled that the book was awarded an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, but, in true Findley fashion, there is much more at work in a novel that explores the darkness of human nature even in the brightest of beachside locations.
Return to the Stage
While he had left acting to pursue life as a writer, Findley still had the stage in his blood and Elizabeth Rex, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2000, won the Governor General’s Award the same year. The play, which takes place over a single night, captures many of Findley’s themes in a story about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and an actor from William Shakespeare’s company who often plays female roles on the stage. The parallels between the characters — a woman who has had to surrender her femininity in order to rule, and a gay man who spends most of his life passing as a woman — form the core of this drama, which touches on questions of loyalty, grief and dying.
Late Period Works
Pilgrim (1999) introduced readers to the title character, an immortal man who wants to die but is doomed to wander through time. The novel, which was nominated for the Giller Prize, begins in 1912, with Pilgrim admitted to the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zürich following yet another suicide attempt. The supervising doctor – Carl Jung – tries to cure Pilgrim of his delusions, but things may not be as straightforward as they seem. What if, as the world slumps toward war, Pilgrim is exactly who, and where, he needs to be?
With The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995), Findley returned once again to his family’s history for the fictional story of Charlie Kilworth, who is searching for his father and questioning whether he should become a parent himself. According to biographer Sherrill Grace, Findley viewed The Piano Man’s Daughter as “a companion piece to The Wars,” but drawn from his mother’s side of the family.
As Kilworth says, late in the book, “This is the story of everything I know. Of who we are and how we’ve lived. And where we come from.”
When it comes to Findley and his work, the line is a perfect summation, and a credo.