Timothy Findley (Obituary)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 15, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

When a writer dies, he becomes his words. Timothy FINDLEY, who died on June 20 at 71, left behind an extraordinary body of work. We will read his books differently now, knowing there will be no more of them.

Findley, Timothy (Obituary)

When a writer dies, he becomes his words. Timothy FINDLEY, who died on June 20 at 71, left behind an extraordinary body of work. We will read his books differently now, knowing there will be no more of them.

Findley's death has special poignancy. His generation of writers changed Canadian culture forever. There was a time in the 1960s and '70s when writers and critics could be found anxiously discussing Canadian identity, asking why Canadians had an inferiority complex, and wondering about our place in the world. But authors like Robertson DAVIES, Mordecai RICHLER, Al PURDY, Margaret LAURENCE and Timothy Findley - all now gone - answered those questions simply by writing passionately about their own place, no apologies needed. Now no one says with stupefaction: "You want to be a Canadian author!" Instead, young writers talk of agents and international advances, confident that the world is paying attention. But only a few are left of the remarkable generation who made this possible.

There was also a time when we delighted in dismissing the WASP foundations of English Canadian culture. Toronto was a banker's city, grey and dull; English Canadians were repressed. But now we recognize that the tradition of decency and fairness that defines this country at its best was laid down from those roots. And within that tradition surfaced a group of writers who, born of it, took from its strengths and savagely criticized its weaknesses. Findley was one of these.

It was never easy. Findley turned 47 the year The Wars was published. His first two novels had been greeted lukewarmly, and he was stuck writing scripts for television and radio. His partner, William Whitehead, speaks of a dark period of bitterness and pessimism. But then Findley found his subject: a young soldier from Toronto fighting in the First World War whose generation was betrayed by war. In Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer's Workbook, he describes how the book gelled. Reading his uncle's letters from the front, looking at old photographs, steeping himself in the times, he experienced that excitement when "one catches something that is communicable." It was a modest claim - how could he know he was writing a masterpiece, a book that would send a plumb line directly into the brutal heart of war. Perhaps one of the most eloquent responses to the novel came from Findley's own father: "Tiff, the dead stand up and salute you."

In my strongest memory of Tiff, he is standing at the podium in the auditorium of Toronto's Queen Street Mental Health Centre. It was 1993, and we were celebrating the launch of a book called The City and the Asylum. He showed the finesse of his actor's training as he positioned himself in the light and waited. An extraordinary gentleness and humour played across his face. He said with an impish grin: "I am dangerous tonight because I have just been to the Cirque du Soleil." And then he was off, a tightrope walker precariously balancing on his own words. He read from Headhunter, the part where Susanna Moodie, the pioneer author of Roughing It in the Bush, meets with the character Lilah Kemp in the bowels of the Queen Street asylum, the very building in which we sat. It was a consummate performance, but the message was dark. Findley was saying that at the end of the plague-ridden 20th century, it was obvious something had gone terribly wrong with the human psyche, since we were clearly bent on destroying ourselves.

What will his legacy be? In the long run of history, most great writers have only two or three works that last. I think Findley's will be The Wars, Headhunter and his final drama, Elizabeth Rex, which theatre critic Robert Cushman says may turn out to be the best play the Stratford Festival has commissioned in its 50 years. But other readers favour Pilgrim, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Famous Last Words. The joy is there were so many. In the last decade, his work had finally begun to reach a European audience. His reputation will grow, as ironically happens with a writer's passing.

I am now writing Findley's biography. My publisher, Iris Tupholme at Harper-Collins Canada, had talked first with Findley and Whitehead and said they were enthusiastic. At the time I thought: this is an imagination I would like to know intimately; it is a mind I could never exhaust. I had hoped for long conversations with Tiff. Now my conversations with him will take place within the pages of his books. And those who watched or participated in his life will speak of its meaning.

As I begin my reading, I hold to a comment he made about The Wars: "Dreadful things happen, but the book ends up saying 'Yes!' " That's what moves me about Timothy Findley: despite the darkness he perceived, he always found the stamina to affirm.

Maclean's July 15, 2002

Selected Works of
Timothy Findley (Obituary)