10 June 2010

Donald Jack Tackles Timothy Findley

The Wars shines brightly, even as Timothy Findley's star falls. A Penguin Modern Classic, it's assigned to reluctant high school and college students across the land. I'm betting a fair percentage actually read the thing. I know I did. Liked it, too. Would I today? Don't know. That said, The Wars has been on my mind since I came across Donald Jack's review in the 15 October 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail.

It's always interesting to read contemporary criticism of works that have entered the canon. Did the reviewer sense that there was something special? Would the piece feature some grand pronouncement? Some recognition of achievement? There's nothing of the sort in Jack's review, though it does make for interesting reading.

Jack wasn't known for his criticism, but he must have been a tempting choice. His bestselling Bandy Papers, described by the Globe as "a series of novels about the misadventures of Bartholomew Bandy during The First World War", was twice awarded the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. What would he have to say about a less ribald work, one lacking slapstick, set during the very same conflict?

The answer follows.

Witness Jack's clumsy dance around the real reason he dislikes the novel, marvel at his gloriously hypocritical summation:
In his new novel, The Wars, Timothy Findley tells the story of a young Canadian's experiences in the first World War. Robert Ross comes from a rich Toronto family whose eldest daughter, Rowena, is hydrocephalic and Robert is her self-appointed guardian. When Rowena dies while playing with her rabbits, he blames himself. His alcoholic mother insists that Robert must kill the rabbits. "All these actors were obeying some kind of fate we call 'revenge.' Because a girl had died – and her rabbits had survived her."
Robert joins up. "The days were made of maps and horses: of stable drill and artillery range." He fails in an Alberta bordello. Though he sees a war hero locked in homosexual combat, it does not affect his subsequent attitude to that warrior. Though he is an officer, "Telling other people what to do made him laugh. Just as being told what to do made him angry."
He experiences the trenches, gas, and shell fire. He loves animals but there is little evidence of warmth, affection or concern for others, even in a war noted for the comradeship it inspired. He has an affair with Lady Barbara d'Orsay in England. It is described by others from a distant perspective.
He returns to France, and is raped by his fellow soldiers in the dark. So he doesn't know who they are. At the climax of the book his concern for the well-being of a trainload of horses and his state of mind causes him to attempt a rescue. When they try to stop him he kills several of his comrades. The rescue of the horses results in many of them being burned to death. Robert survives for a few years, mad and disfigured.
I know how much work goes into a novel, so I regret that I find Findley's picture of the war to be an unacceptable distortion.

No further comment is necessary.

Oh, okay. Two words: "homosexual combat".


  1. I was long gone from high school by the time "The Wars" came along. If that is the whole review it has to be the most perfunctory I've read. Makes the novel sound like a royal pain to get through.

  2. That's a weirdly and badly written review--like a high school book report.

    I loved 'The Wars'. I made the mistake of starting Findley via 'The Butterfly Plague', which didn't do much for me (well, okay, it annoyed the crap out of me). But then I read 'The Wars' and 'Famous Last Words' and was hooked, and have loved all his other stuff that I've read since. I just wish those Canadian Penguin Modern Classics had been a little longer-lived.

  3. Seems we all agree that Jack's is a good example of a bad bad review.

    I always think of The Butterfly Plague as Findley's problem child. There wasn't a Canadian edition until 1986 - seventeen years after it was first published - and even then he felt the need to revise the thing. No, I think The Wars and Famous Last Words are the places to start - the high points in his career in my opinion.