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1 - Le souffle réparateur de la parole : The Wars de Timothy Findley / The Healing Strength of Words:Timothy Findley's The Wars

Timothy Findley’s Wars

Sherrill Grace
p. 17-38


Dans cet article, Sherrill Grace explore les liens entre la vie de l’auteur canadien Timothy Findley et les documents d’archive qu’il a utilisés pour ses œuvres de fiction traitant de la Première et de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale : le roman emblématique des débuts, The Wars ; son chef d’œuvre Famous Last Words ; son exploration de la guerre sur le front canadien dans The Piano Man’s Daughter ; et deux nouvelles situées en France.  Elle souligne aussi des informations biographiques clés et identifie certaines des stratégies de l’auteur dans la peinture des impératifs éthiques de la mémoire et de l’histoire car elles façonnent sa fiction.

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All the family photographs are in the public domain, but it is a great pleasure to thank Bill Whitehead for his permission to use family photographs for Figures 1, 4, 5, 8, and 10.  For Figure 7, my thanks to the Bull/Guthrie family.  All other photographs are my own, but I do thank the present owners of Stone Orchard for allowing me to wander the grounds and take pictures.


  • 1 Findley, a novelist, playwright, essayist, and short story writer, won many awards for his work. He (...)

1It would be hard to exaggerate the importance and impact of war on the life and work of Canadian author Timothy Findley (1930-2002).1 Although he was born in well-to-do Rosedale, Toronto, the two world wars reached deeply into that safe, comfortable world to twist or destroy the lives of many individuals and families. As he has told interviewers, "I was brought up [...] with my cradle being rocked to the [...] songs" of the First World War (quoted in Kareda, 69). But it was much more than the music that would haunt his life.

  • 2 I gave the original version of this paper at the University of Toulouse Symposium on The Wars, held (...)

2Findley was born in 1930; therefore, one might think that for him the First World War was long over and forgotten, but in his family it was not over. His father lived in the shadow of the Great War and in the shadow of an older brother, Findley’s uncle, who fought and was seriously injured in the war. Findley, and his novel The Wars (1977), had a special connection with this uncle—as I shall explain. And, of course, the Second World War was looming just over the horizon and Findley’s childhood would be profoundly affected by that war. I realize that such claims may sound odd to Europeans on whose soil the horrifying events of both wars took place, and I am by no means making comparisons between home front Canada and the battle fields of France, especially for a man who was not a soldier and had no first-hand experience of battle. Nevertheless, if I, as Findley’s biographer, hope to understand the man and usefully explore his work, I must stress this point: Timothy Findley was preoccupied as a person and an artist with these two cataclysms. Hence my title—"Timothy Findley’s Wars."2 Alberto Manguel, a fellow writer, friend, and long-time resident of France, put this concern with war well, when he said that "in Findley’s world there is always [...] a war going on: historical or social, political or personal [...] ‘war’ is the name given to the machineries of fate" (Manguel 14).

3Perhaps some biographical background and literary description will assist readers exploring Findley for the first time. He was named—nicknamed really—for the uncle who fought in the Great War. This man, Allan Findley’s older brother, was called Tif for short—the full name was Thomas Irving Findley. Timothy’s full name was Timothy Irving Frederick Findley, and his nickname was Tiff. Uncle Tif died in 1933 as a result of his war injuries, and he was revered as a war hero by the Findley family. Young Tiff often visited the ailing man, listened to his stories, and observed the attitudes of the adults around the bedside. He also inherited the cherished war journal of Uncle Tif, a journal consisting of the letters he wrote home from the front and from hospitals. Forty years later this journal would play a strategic role in the creation of the novel The Wars.

  • 3 Findley commented on his sense of betrayal on many occasions, but the most moving portrayal of his (...)

4Allan Findley, Tiff’s father, also played an important role in the story of Findley’s wars, but in Allan’s case the impact came directly from the Second World War. And the impact was much less positive. Tiff is on record as saying that he never forgave his father for betraying him (and his mother) by running off to join the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) at the beginning of the war.3 Allan Findley did not warn his nine-year-old son that he was doing this; he simply showed up at home one evening in uniform, slightly drunk, and with some tipsy, loud, male friends. To the child it seemed as if this man could not wait to escape his family. As a consequence of his enlisting, the family’s fortunes suffered drastically; they lost their home, and Tiff’s mother was often absent trying to save her marriage to a philandering, weak, man. Tiff simply felt abandoned. When the war was over, Allan Findley lay about at home drinking and feeling sorry for himself. A teenaged Tiff grew to loathe and fear this father. It would only be years later, in retrospect, that Tiff would come to understand his father’s sense of failure, when compared with his war hero brother, and his further despair when all he could do in the war was "fly a desk."

  • 4 The impact on a boy of such a spectacle at the dinner table is understandable, and Findley goes on (...)

5As I move beyond the influence of his immediate family, a few more details help to contextualize the adult writer’s ethical position and artistic choices. Friends of the family often talked about the two wars on social occasions; Findley describes one Dieppe veteran in the essay "A Little Town in Normandy" as suddenly growing pale and falling silent at the dinner table because "the horror of what he’d endured would never leave him."4 An aunt of special importance for Tiff had married a veteran of the Great War and she suffered a mental breakdown; an uncle died in the flu epidemic that swept Europe and North America after that war; the newspapers in Canada were full of war news during the thirties and early forties; and the Findley family was staunchly royalist—what happened to England was of grave concern to them. Moreover, Tiff knew in his early teens that he was gay. When he told his parents, they rejected this reality; Allan was particularly virulent. For Tiff, however, this gave him yet another reason to be sensitive to the events of the Second World War and hostile to the militaristic version of masculinity he was faced with at home. Because he suffered many illnesses as a child and youth, he missed a lot of school. This meant that he was thrown back on his own resources and interests, and he became an avid reader of history and literature. Twentieth-century history was a near obsession because he grew up needing to understand his time and place and why his century was so violent and destructive. When he began to write seriously in the mid-1950s, it was natural for him to turn to world history and to family stories (usually about dysfunctional families) for inspiration.

  • 5 The term "uncreative forgetting" is Andreas Huyssen's in Present Pasts (10). I discuss Findley's et (...)

6Findley’s attention to the two wars was reinforced in the mid-1950s, when he spent three years in London, England, with tours to the continent (notably Berlin) as an actor. At that time he saw, first-hand, the damage caused by war, both to cities and people. One of his first stories—"War"—addresses the impact on him of his father’s enlistment with the RCAF. After his return to Canada in the spring of 1956, he toured with Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker, across the United States, and this took him to Los Angeles, where he stumbled upon documents that, he has claimed, changed him forever: these were the photographs taken by the photographer, Ivan Moffat, when the American army entered Dachau at the war’s end. The shock of these photographs forced Findley to see contemporary life as a terrifying juxtaposition of war on both the historical and personal levels. These photographs also reinforced his growing sense of responsibility to resist "uncreative forgetting" and all forms of oppression (from masculinist ideology, fundamentalist religion, and militarism to fascist bullying, anti-Semitism, censorship, homophobia, and environmental despoliation) in the only way he knew how: through his art, which is an art of creative remembering.5

7Although I cannot discuss each of his novels and plays, let alone his non-fiction, I will note that his first two novels, The Last of the Crazy People (1967) and The Butterfly Plague, both raise the spectre of war and link one or other of the two world wars to domestic collapse back home. The Butterfly Plague (1969; 1986) is especially important in this regard because it creates a North America in 1936-37 (specifically Hollywood) permeated by its local fascist behaviour and indifferent to the warning signals of Hitler’s rise to power. This novel is also important because of Findley’s attempt to bring the two domains of home and away, us and them, here and there, together to expose the pernicious, hypocritical similarities between them. He does not for a moment pretend that England, Canada, and the United States were virtuous winners during the two wars; he always brings home the ethical challenge of bearing witness to one’s own violence in war.

  • 6 I have discussed Famous Last Words in some detail in "Border Crossings in Contemporary Canadian Res (...)
  • 7 Findley always wrote from a deeply Canadian perspective about the larger world. He was never narrow (...)

8In my following comments, I will trace the connections between biography, the archive, and a few of his major texts with particular attention to The Wars. I will briefly examine these connections with the novel that Findley wrote as the home front counterpart to The WarsThe Piano Man’s Daughter (1995). And then I will comment briefly on two stories he wrote later in his life that have French connections to war and biography: "Stones" and "The Madonna of the Cherry Trees." But no consideration of Timothy Findley’s wars (personal, familial, military, and historical) is complete without an acknowledgment of Famous Last Words (1981).6 This novel is, I believe, his masterpiece and in it Findley shatters all illusions the Allies might have had about their innocence during the Second World War. Works I cannot consider that are also relevant to this central issue of war are Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), where Findley tackles the biblical story of the Great Flood and exposes Jehovah and Noah as fascist tyrants; Headhunter (1993), in which he locates Conrad’s heart of darkness in Toronto; Pilgrim (1999), where he creates a sweeping panorama of psychological and social decay across western Europe; and You Went Away (1996) with its heartbreaking portrayal of a father who enlists in the RCAF (as Allan Findley did) and abandons his wife and son.7

  • 8 For the purposes of this paper, I have had to make a selection from the thirty images I showed duri (...)
  • 9 The value of the archive is central to Findley's thinking and his artistic practice. He preserved l (...)

9To establish aspects of Findley’s context, I will briefly introduce a few of the people and places that provide the inspiration and allusions in his work, as well as some of the documents, archives, and key events in history that he studied and then transformed into fiction: family members, historical figures, animals, Toronto, Stone Orchard, Dieppe, and Cotignac.8 In this brief overview, I shall try to capture what war, as a metaphor and an event, meant to Findley and to demonstrate why he believed so passionately that he—as an artist—and that each of us must pay attention to the warning signals around us today and heed the lessons of the past. To heed the past—and he is emphatic about this—we must preserve the documents, both public and private, that bear witness. We must not destroy the archive.9


10The narrative proper of The Wars begins "at the archives with photographs [...] Spread over the tabletops, a whole age lies in fragments underneath the lamps. The war to end all wars [...]. As the past moves under your fingertips, part of it crumbles. Other parts, you know you’ll never find. This is what you have" (11). From the outset, then, the reader is addressed ("your fingertips," "you know") by a narrator who we come to understand is both Robert Ross’s fictional biographer and an historian. As the story of Ross develops, this biographer will frequently return us to the archives, to photographs (described and evoked, not actually reproduced), to letters, newspaper articles and headlines, and to the transcripts of taped interviews he has conducted with two elderly witnesses to the war and to Robert’s life and death.

11As Findley’s biographer I too have had to begin at several archives in my search for him. Family photograph albums have been invaluable and a 1944 snapshot (Figure 1) of Findley as a teenager of fourteen with his father, Allan, and his older brother Michael, gives me not only a (seemingly) cheerful image of the three Findley men but also a shock of recognition and a sharp insight into the way an artist works with autobiography. This image closely resembles the description of a photograph that opens one of Findley’s earliest stories: "War": "That’s my dad in the middle. We were just kids then. Bud on the right and me on the left. That was taken just before my dad went into the army. Some day that was" (65).

  • 10 The earliest discussion of photography in The Wars is Eva-Marie Kröller's "The Exploding Frame: Use (...)
  • 11 Although Findley wrote this story in 1954-5 in London, he chose not to publish it until after Allan (...)

12If one were to judge the "day that was" from the photograph alone, it would seem clear that it captures three happy family members, a smiling, proud father in uniform with his two smiling sons. It is not my task here to analyse this image or Findley’s extensive use of photography (and photograph albums); this work has already begun.10 My task is to draw attention to what a twenty-four-year-old Findley did with the image in this early story and the narrative he located behind the image. I believe Findley had this photograph with him during his three years in England, so that when he wrote his story he could study it and delve behind the surface illusion of happiness for a very different meaning.11 The opening statement is accurate: that is Allan Findley in the middle. So are the short descriptive sentences that follow—at least, they are mostly accurate. Allan Findley joined the air force, not the army; Findley’s brother’s name was Michael, not Bud; and the right/left positions only apply if one is looking at the picture, which Neil, the narrator (Findley), is doing and invites us to do.

13However, the "some day that was" phrase is ambiguous. Its contradictory possibilities unfold quickly as the narrator shifts into the memories called up by the picture—his memory discourse—of his childhood rage at this father who seems so eager to escape his family. The boy, called Neil, will hide and when his father comes looking for him, he will batter the man with stones, hitting him twice in the head and knocking him out. By the story’s end, the adult narrator recalls regretting his violent actions and he acknowledges that "it wasn’t his [father’s] fault that he had to go" (81). More importantly for the story (and for Findley’s biographer), the narrator closes with his memory of his mother taking a photograph (this photograph, and it is for her that young Tiff is smiling). Then that photograph is placed in a box for his father and, we are told, it is "there still" (81). It has been saved for the writer’s archive.

14The most powerful and influential landscape for Findley was the farm north of Toronto where he lived with his partner Bill Whitehead for over thirty years. Stone Orchard, as they called their property, was where Tiff wrote most of his novels, non-fiction, and plays, and the old farm house and surrounding fields, nearby river, and animals (domestic and wild) would provide him with a multitude of images, symbols, allusions and, ultimately, with a vision of domestic happiness and an earthly paradise. As his biographer, I have visited the house, walked in those fields, and paid attention to the sounds, smells, and sights of that landscape. Once experienced, personally and privately, the place becomes unforgettable. More importantly, it becomes possible to identify the field, the room, the grove of trees (and more) that Findley transformed into fictional landscapes of memory in his work.

15For example, from the sunroom of the house, one can see the old root cellar where Findley would often write during the summer (Figure 2), and if one stands beside that small log root cellar one can survey the expanse of fields, ditches, and woodlots that he would recreate for his fiction (Figure 3). In his effort to understand something of the misery faced by soldiers waiting days on end in the water-filled, rat-infested trenches of the First World War, he tried spending a cold, wet November night in one of the ditches. This experience, albeit partial, brief, and aborted (he retreated to the house before morning), helped him feel his way into the descriptions he needed for The Wars.

  • 12 I have not found many original letters by Thomas Irving Findley. The war "diary" is a typescript pr (...)

16A more concrete influence on the novel came from his uncle’s war "diary" and from the family’s hero-worship of this man. Lieutenant Thomas Irving Findley (1895-1933) enlisted in 1915, fought in France, was injured twice, and then invalided out of the war in 1918. At first, his family was told that he was "missing in action" (devastating news for any family), but he was rescued by French troops and brought to the military hospital at Ris-Orangis (Figure 4). Although his life was saved and he returned home to marry and have a family, he never recovered fully and he died at thirty-eight. The letters he wrote home during the war were preserved by his parents and sister and later collected into a type of war diary, or journal, to be treasured and eventually given to his namesake: Timothy Findley (Figure 5).12

17When Findley began writing The Wars, he turned to the historical record and to his memories of Uncle Tif and the war diary for information and inspiration. But here a caveat lector is required. The hero of The Wars, Robert Ross, is not Uncle Tif, and what Robert experiences and, above all, what he does do not correspond with what we know of the experiences, views, or actions of this uncle. It is simplistic to draw close parallels between the actual people in Findley’s life and his fictional characters. Nevertheless, traces of influence can be identified, and they demonstrate three things very clearly: one, the profound impact made on Findley by his childhood memories of this man; two, his realization—equally profound and horrifying—about the nature of war; and, finally, the artistic skill Findley had for transforming facts, people, and others’ words into fiction. Unlike the commentary of this uncle, Findley’s fictional treatment of the Great War carries an ethical imperative and an understanding (only possible after the fact) of the complex forces that propel human beings into war. This creative transformation of facts, events, and archival data into art is a subject worthy of lengthy examination. Here I can only provide one small glimpse into Findley’s creative process by comparing a passage from the war diary with its fictional reincarnation in the novel (Figure 6).

18The left-hand page is from the diary, but it has been annotated and marked for use by Findley. The right-hand page is from The Wars (94), and the circled passages correspond roughly with each other. What is interesting, however, both to a biographer and a literary critic is the delicate inflection of the fiction to suggest an ethical dimension not present in the real source. Part of the difference arises, inevitably, from the different contexts (letters written from eye-witness account and narrative constructed by an artist—which uncle Tif was not—years later in peace-time). But as readers we can grasp this difference by examining the words on both pages. For example, by telling us that the wounded German "was staring at the sky," while "lying on a stretcher," he humanizes the soldier and suggests that he has been abandoned there (where are the stretcher-bearers? Why has this man been dumped there?) This is a fear and a fate shared by both sides in the war. It most certainly is not, in Findley’s hands, a "forlorn-looking spectacle" (see the diary; my emphasis) to be passed by. These touches are small, but they are representative and telling. For Robert Ross and his fictional biographer, this image of a man dying in no-man’s-land epitomizes all that is evil in war. For Timothy Findley’s biographer, this image serves as a warning against a blurring of the boundaries between art and autobiography. What Lieutenant Thomas Irving Findley understood or felt about the German soldier is beside the point and impossible to know. His diary does not tell us.

  • 13 As a child, Findley was distressed to be denied the company of this marvellous aunt. As an adult wh (...)

19At the end of The Wars, Findley quotes an "Irish essayist and critic" called Nicholas Fagan as saying (in 1943) that "Nothing so completely verifies our perception of a thing as our killing of it" (191). It is tempting to accept this naming and quoting at face value and believe that there was a writer with this name who said this. However, the facts of biography and autobiography complicate the matter in fascinating ways. Timothy Findley’s great grandfather (on his mother’s mother’s side) was a Fagan with the first name of Nicholas, and the complications do not stop there. His mother’s sister, Emily Ruth (Bull) Carlyle (Figure 7) was the aunt who made such an enormous impression on a very young Tiff. Aunt Ruth was different; she spoke in images, she told stories, and she had visions. Ultimately, the child was removed from her presence (at about 6 or 7) and she was incarcerated in a mental institution.13 But Findley loved and never forgot his Aunt Ruth.

20When he discovered that she had published poems under the alias "Nicholas Fagan," he began to imagine ways of transforming her into fiction so he could give her a voice and celebrate her strange wisdom. The Irish essayist who sums up the power of perception in The Wars is Findley’s recreation of Aunt Ruth. He brings her back again as an essayist and critic in Headhunter, but he creates her as a full, fictional character called Lily in The Piano Man’s Daughter. Moreover, in Journeyman (85-95) he describes the real person at length and admits that he closely identifies with the fictional Lily and the actual Ruth, who so desperately wanted to be a writer and who was always intimately connected with his memories of the First World War. "In around the time when the war was claiming lives in a way that even God could not keep track of—in around 1916-1918," he explains, "the girl in the photograph started using another name. Her mind declared its separation from her body by uttering this name. First only to [herself]—and then [...] to pieces of paper [...]’I am Nicholas Fagan’" (Journeyman, 87).

21The Piano Man’s Daughter is Findley’s home-front representation of the years leading up to, during, and after the First World War. He saw his novel as a counterpart to The Wars, and he drew extensively on his maternal family’s history for its story and characters. The endpapers of the hardback first edition show a collage of old, black and white photographs from his private archive. By cross-checking these images with others from the family albums, I have identified several of his relatives (Figure 8): for example, from left to right, Aunt Ruth appears in a snapshot standing between her sister Margaret (Tiff’s mother) and their father Frederick Bull (Tiff’s grandfather); Tiff is there as a boy with his dog; and, I believe the woman with the large hat is Ruth.

22The novel is about three generations of an Ontario family, from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of the Second World War. The woman of the title is Lily, the daughter of a young woman living on a farm near a small southern Ontario town and of a handsome young man from Toronto who visits small towns to sell Wyatt pianos to middle-class families. The young piano salesman dies before he can marry his sweetheart, and the young woman gives birth to their child, Lily, by herself in a corner of a field on her family’s property. This property closely resembles Findley’s Stone Orchard home, and the field described in the novel still exists (see Figure 3). A few years after the birth, when her dead lover’s older brother Frederick (who now owns the piano factory) visits and begins to court her, she does not tell him that little Lily suffers from seizures. But after the marriage, as Lily grows older, it becomes impossible to hide her condition: Lily is different; she speaks in images, tells stories, has visions, and has an obsession with fire.

23Eventually Lily is rejected by her bourgeois step-father and alienated from her mother. She bears a son, Charlie, and with him she often flees in the night to escape the visions and voices that haunt her. It is the adult Charlie who narrates this family saga and gives us his beloved mother’s biography. The mystery in that life-story, the secret that motivates his compulsion to tell her story is nothing less than his own paternity (a key to his autobiography). The beautiful Lily is never able, or willing, to tell him who his father was, but his devotion to her is profound and unflagging. When she dies in a fire that consumes the asylum, where her family has placed her, he is devastated. However, her death leads directly to the answer to his question—his father was a young German who died in the First World War. The year is now 1938 and Charlie will join the Canadian army, thereby closing the circle of life and death in which his generation, like his father’s, is trapped. "There’s a war coming now," he tells us. "Another circle is closing around us [...]. There are few enough pianos left to tune, and though I’m twenty-nine, there must be something I can do. In the army. Yes, there’s that circle, too. The circle in which my father fell" (457).


24Charlie’s war, the Second World War, also haunted and disturbed Findley. As I noted earlier, his masterpiece, Famous Last Words, confronts the ethical challenges and nightmare realities of that war. But there are other works in which Findley tackles aspects of this war and wrestles with its horror, its immorality and corruption, and its destruction. The finest of these texts is the story "Stones," which I will consider briefly, but another story, "The Madonna of the Cherry Trees," is also worth attention. Unlike the home-front novella You Went Away, these two stories are set partly ("Stones") and entirely ("Madonna") in France.

  • 14 Findley expresses his outrage in the essay "A Little Town in Normandy," but for a historical accoun (...)

25 The tragedy that took place on 19 August 1942 on the beaches at Dieppe is well-documented and familiar to Canadians.14 Findley knew about the tragedy long before he first visited Dieppe in 1979 with his partner, Bill Whitehead, to write the script for a documentary film about the event (see Whitehead). After that trip, he returned on at least two occasions to better reflect upon the history of the town. Like anyone surveying those beaches today, he was struck by the sheer difficulty of walking on them (never mind being under enemy fire and weighed down with gear) and by the many reddish-coloured stones scattered amongst the rocks (Figure 9). To him, Dieppe epitomized the utter waste of war, the stupidity of officers in command (shades of Robert Ross’s rebellion), and the stunning carelessness with which the British sent Canadians to their deaths. Beyond the historical event itself or later attempts to understand, rationalize, or excuse it, however, Findley came to see in Dieppe a symbol of the long-term destruction of war and the insidious ways in which the resultant trauma reached into the homes and lives of those in Canada to haunt survivors and the next generation. In the story "Stones" it is this haunting and damage to a family and its children that he explores. The result is a beautifully crafted narrative that leaves the reader feeling haunted, not only by a past event but also by the lasting impact of trauma and what such trauma portends for the future.

  • 15 Again a caveat is necessary. David Max is no more Allan Findley than Robert Ross is Uncle Tif. Neve (...)

26The story is told in the first person by Ben Max, who remembers the Second World War, which snatched his father from the family and returned him late in 1942, a shattered and violent wreck. The distance provided by the memory structure of the narration creates a crucial space for reflection, ethical perspective, historical contextualization (impossible for a story told by a child), and finally a sense of reconciliation. The family in the story resembles the Findleys in certain ways: they live in Rosedale; they walk streets familiar to Findley from his childhood; and the returned soldier and father bears some resemblance to Allan Findley.15 He becomes a violent drunk, destroys his marriage, and abandons his children. The reason for this man’s disintegration, however, is far more serious than was Allan Findley’s failure to see action during the war. David Max refused to leave his landing craft when the men under his command had to do so; he froze while all around him Canadian soldiers drowned or died on the rocky beach. He was rescued, taken back to England, and returned to Toronto in disgrace. He knows, as do those few who survived, that he betrayed his men at Dieppe through cowardice. When another Dieppe veteran tracks him down and throws a brick through the window of the family business, he must admit his guilt to his family and himself: "On the brick, a single word was printed in yellow chalk: Murderer" (215).

27Now, in the fictional present of narration and remembering, it is the adult son who must come to terms with this father, with the man’s collapse, and with his recent death. It is the son who confesses that "on the 19th of August, 1942, the raid on Dieppe had taken place—and the consequent carnage had cost the lives of over a thousand Canadians [...]. My father never left his landing craft" (216). While this shocking confession helps the reader to understand what happened to the father and why he disintegrated into a violent alcoholic, the story does not end on that note.

28To capture the quality of haunting passed from one generation to the next or the haunting of the present (and future) by a violent past, the son must atone in some manner for the sin of the father; he must acknowledge the long shadow of Dieppe. He does so by taking his father’s ashes back to the beach, the scene of his disgrace, and scattering them there:

The stones at Dieppe are mostly flint—and their colours range from white through yellow to red. The red stones look as if they have been washed in blood [...]. I hunkered down above them, holding all that remained of my father in my fist. [...] I let him down between my fingers, feeling him turn to paste—watching him divide and disappear. He is dead and gone. (219-20)

  • 16 It is an interesting biographical fact that when Allan Findley died he was cremated, and Findley, i (...)

29And so he returns the soldier to the historic site of his failure, the site where he should have (or so the dominant military discourse insists) have risked his life and probably died with his men. This ritual of return to a sacred site with the ashes of the dead conveys, I believe, a profound sense of ethical and emotional justice, even a sense of reparation and reconciliation. Through the act of remembering and then telling us his own and his father’s story, Ben Max acknowledges that his father, like Dieppe on 19 August 1942, may be "dead and gone," but is never forgotten. Both the man and the place live on by haunting the present (in the scattering of ashes) and the future (when we read the story).16

30But the story is still not finished. It continues for another few paragraphs, thereby stretching the process of remembering until it surrounds (almost cushions) Ben’s bleak ritual for the dead because he concludes with happy memories of his pre-war childhood family. "I like it [‘our story’] best—to end with all of us moving there [on Rosedale’s streets] beneath the trees in the years before the war" (221). Thus, a father’s life is restored, within a process of remembering, to a better state. The trauma that yanked him out of time and his place within a family is not forgiven or forgotten. Instead, it has been faced, accepted, and to some small degree assuaged through the power of storytelling.

  • 17 In 1995 Findley and Whitehead purchased a small home in the Provencal village of Cotignac. They had (...)
  • 18 I have not yet found any evidence that Findley visited the memorial at Gurs or the town of Pau, but (...)

31"The Madonna of the Cherry Trees" is a late story that represents one of the few examples readers have of Findley’s attempt to internalize and write from his experience of living in the south of France.17 At the same time as he drew upon a French landscape, which was still new to him, he returned to his abiding concern with the Second World War and the trauma and haunting it inflicted upon survivors. "Madonna" is set in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of France at what appears to be Pau and the nearby site of the former concentration camp at Gurs. I say appears to be because the name he gives his fictional town is Villeverger (an ancient town surrounded by cherry orchards), but the description of the town and its magnificent cathedral closely resembles Pau.18

32 The story involves the three elderly Vergerine sisters, survivors of the war, who clean "the great cathedral at Villeverger" in "mop-soled shoes," removing all traces of dust and dirt (193-4). As the story unfolds, however, they (and we) realize that such traces can never be removed entirely from our lives—nor should they be. In March of 1996, two new tenants arrive to rent the second floor apartment in the sisters’ house: Rosa Fuentes and her mute companion (who she claims is her daughter) Cristobel. Shortly after their arrival in town, the sudden deaths occur of three elderly women being cared for in the hospital. No one can explain these deaths, but they begin to trouble the otherwise simple lives of the Vergerine sisters. The coroner from Toulouse is called in; an investigation gets underway; and before long ghosts from the past surface to shatter the seemingly serene and innocent present.

33The truth emerges when Rosa Fuentes confesses to the sisters that she has killed the old women in the hospital because she holds them responsible for starving and torturing Jews held in the concentration camp near the town in the final years of the war. Cristobel is a survivor of this terrible period in French history. Born to a Jewish woman who had been raped in the camp, Cristobel has never spoken, and so it must be Rosa, the Catalan survivor who rescued the child, who returns to peaceful Villeverger to exact revenge by murdering the three former camp guards. At first the Vergerine sisters refuse to believe Rosa’s story: "It was not us," they say. "We did not do this" (223). But of course, they must recognize, as must the reader, that not knowing about evil or standing by while atrocities take place, does not absolve anyone. At least, it does not do so in Findley’s world and in this story.

34Rosa will turn herself in to the authorities, and the Vergerine sisters will keep and care for Cristobel. This generous act is, in itself, a sign of atonement, but there is no indication in the story that the Jewish woman, now over fifty years old, will ever speak. By remaining mute she becomes a living sign or trace of the trauma that persists in our lives. By accepting her into their home, these three good French women, so gentle and devout, make a form of reparation for past wrongs. They clear a space in their lives and in the present for the silent, haunting presence of this ghost from their—and our—collective past.

  • 19 I cannot pause to examine the nature of these last two images—ashes and dust—but they are disturbin (...)

35This acknowledging of the presence of the past, what Findley calls in The Piano Man’s Daughter the passing along of an archive of memories (537), brings me to my closing thoughts on his life-long interest in the two world wars and with what I call his commitment to creative remembering. In The Wars, that archive comprised photographs, actual family documents, and fictional eyewitness memories of Robert and the war. In The Piano Man’s Daughter the archive was, if anything, more personal because in Lily and Charlie he created a voice for his lost Aunt Ruth and himself. In the two stories I have selected for consideration here, remembering and haunting are once more central strategies in establishing the persistence of the past in the present, but the archive now contains ashes and dust.19

36In conclusion, I return to Famous Last Words and the passage from Inside Memory that helps me understand the motivation behind Findley’s war stories. The year was 1957 and Findley found himself in the Los Angeles home of Ivan Moffat "staring," as he put it, "through photographs, into the heart of Dachau. After its liberation [...] I was looking into hell—and hell was real. I have never recovered from what I saw that night" (310-11). Although he does not say so explicitly, I suggest that, in a sense, Findley was grateful for that experience. He appreciated and learned from the survival of that archive of photographs.

37Later he remembered that archive for a crucial scene in Famous Last Words when the two American officers who have discovered the body of Mauberley, a famous writer and self-confessed fascist fellow traveller (if not an outright sympathizer), in an abandoned luxury hotel in the Austrian Alps. One soldier argues that Mauberley’s confession, inscribed as an autobiographical story on the hotel’s bedroom walls before he died, proves that he recanted and deserves forgiveness. The other soldier rejects such apologetics. For him, Mauberley is as guilty of war crimes as the Nazis and their collaborators. His reputation as an artist is beside the point and must not be allowed to excuse him. To drive home his point, he spreads photographs of Dachau, taken and preserved after the army liberated the camp, across his desk and he forces his fellow soldier to look at them—to see and remember exactly what men like Mauberley helped facilitate by their silence. And yet—Findley does not opt for an easy black and white response to the enormity of the ethical challenge presented by the war. While these soldiers argue, the reader reads what Mauberley wrote and she must decide for herself if the man stands condemned by his own famous last words.

  • 20 Findley's portrayal of Edward and Wallis as Nazi sympathizers was uncannily prescient for a narrati (...)

38The miracle is that his words survive at all because Mauberley had been tracked down by a Nazi assassin called Reinhardt, who killed him to stop him from giving incriminating evidence against other guilty parties, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.20 After disposing of Mauberley, Reinhardt methodically destroyed the written evidence of who and what Mauberley knew: "Reinhardt’s final act was to burn [...] all of Mauberley’s journals and papers and letters [...]. The complete destruction of the man he had been sent to kill—and all his words" (388). However, Reinhardt did not see the writing on the walls and so, despite the burning of the archive, evidence has survived.

39Whether we decide for or against Mauberley, one thing is clear: Findley knew the value of an archive; he treasured the evidence, however horrifying it might be. He understood that without an archive no decision could be reached about past actions or about the complexities of truth and fact, and that history itself would be forgotten or worse—deliberately silenced. Through all his wars and war stories, but especially in Famous Last Words, Findley warns us that, as Derrida puts it, "to burn the archive [is] to incite amnesia" because an archive is "a pledge and [...] a token of the future" (18). And so, like the biographer in The Wars, I prepare to "begin again at the archives with photographs" (Figure 10).

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Berton, Pierre, Marching as to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years, 1899-1953, Toronto: Anchor, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques, "Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression." Trans. Eric Prenowitz, Diacritics 25.2 (1995): 9-63.

Findley, Timothy, "A Little Town in Normandy", Journeyman, 119-29.

-----, The Butterfly Plague [1969], Rev. ed. 1986. Toronto: Penguin, 1996.

-----, Famous Last Words, Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1981.

-----, Headhunter, Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.

-----, Journeyman: Travels of a Writer, ed. William Whitehead, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2003.

-----, The Last of the Crazy People [1967], Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

-----, "The Madonna of the Cherry Trees", Dust to Dust, Toronto: HarperCollins, 1997, 193-225.

-----, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Markham, ON: Viking, 1984.

-----, The Piano Man’s Daughter, Toronto: HarperCollins, 1995.

-----, Pilgrim, Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999.

-----, "Stones", Stones, Toronto: Viking, 1988, 195-221.

-----, "War", Dinner Along the Amazon. Markham, ON: Penguin Books, 1984, 69-84.

-----, The Wars [1977], Penguin: Harmondsworth Middlesex, 1978.

-----, You Went Away, Toronto: HarperCollins, 1996.

Grace, Sherrill, "Border Crossings in Contemporary Canadian Responses to WWII: Famous Last Words and Burning Vision", Riding/Writing across Borders, ed. Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, Vienna: Vorlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (2011): 369-89.

-----, "‘Uncreative Forgetting’" Memory Discourses and the Case of Timothy Findley", unpublished paper presented at the University of Vienna, October 2013.

Kareda, Urjo, "Adapting 16 Jalna books doesn’t faze TV writer", Toronto Star, 29 May 1979, 69.

Louvel, Liliane, "‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!: A Shout and a Shot", paper presented at the University of Toulouse, December 2013, published in this issue of Caliban, 39-51.

Manguel, Alberto, "Findley’s People", Books in Canada (June/July 1984): 13-4, 15.

Whitehead, William and Timothy Findley, film script, Dieppe, Documentary film, dir. Terence Macartney-Filgate. Narrator, Douglas Rain. CBC, 1979.

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1 Findley, a novelist, playwright, essayist, and short story writer, won many awards for his work. He was an Office of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His novels have been translated into many languages; several have French translations.

2 I gave the original version of this paper at the University of Toulouse Symposium on The Wars, held on 13 December 2013. It is a great pleasure to thank Dr Héliane Ventura and her colleagues for giving me this opportunity to share my research with the scholars who attended the Symposium. It is also a pleasure to thank Dr Françoise Besson for her interest in publishing a full written text, including a small number of the illustrations I used for my oral presentation. My thanks as well to SSHRC for the research grant that supports my work and, most especially, to my UBC graduate student research assistant, Erin Ramlo, without whose enthusiastic help many discoveries and these illustrations would not be possible.

3 Findley commented on his sense of betrayal on many occasions, but the most moving portrayal of his childhood bewilderment and anger are found in the story "War" and in the late work You Went Away.

4 The impact on a boy of such a spectacle at the dinner table is understandable, and Findley goes on to express his adult rage with Dieppe: "It was a callous, brutal waste of youth—a kind of massacre—and it must never be forgotten—or forgiven," Journeyman, 119, 121.

5 The term "uncreative forgetting" is Andreas Huyssen's in Present Pasts (10). I discuss Findley's ethical and aesthetic use of memory in my essay "'Uncreative Forgetting': Memory Discourse and the Case of Timothy Findley."

6 I have discussed Famous Last Words in some detail in "Border Crossings in Contemporary Canadian Responses to WWII: Famous Last Words and Burning Vision." Riding/Writing Across Borders, ed. Waldermar Zacharsiewicz, Vienna: Vorlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2011, 369-89.

7 Findley always wrote from a deeply Canadian perspective about the larger world. He was never narrowly nationalist in his thinking or his art, and he strove to make connections across national and historical borders. The most powerful counterpart to Pilgrim, in which Europe (from Spain to England and Switzerland and from the Renaissance to the Second World War) is explored, is Headhunter, in which the trope of a "heart of darkness" is employed to examine the horrors lurking beneath the surface of the city Canadians like to call "Toronto the Good."

8 For the purposes of this paper, I have had to make a selection from the thirty images I showed during the conference. I am grateful to William Whitehead and other family members for making many of these images available for my use.

9 The value of the archive is central to Findley's thinking and his artistic practice. He preserved letters, photographs, and memorabilia; he dramatized archives and archival research in his work (The Wars provides an excellent example of the archive as a narrative strategy); and he condemned those who sought to censor or destroy an archive (in Famous Last Words he portrays the burning of journals as a work of pure evil). Findley would have endorsed Jacques Derrida's warning in "Archive Fever" that the "mal d’archive" is a radical evil (19) with a deadly impact on the future.

10 The earliest discussion of photography in The Wars is Eva-Marie Kröller's "The Exploding Frame: Uses of Photography in Timothy Findley's The Wars," Journal of Canadian Studies 16. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1981): 68-74; and at the 2013 Toulouse Symposium Liliane Louvel gave an interesting analysis of photographs as capturing the punctum through re-presentation and verbal mimicking in her paper "'I can't! I can't! I can't!: A Shout and a Shot." See her article in this volume.

11 Although Findley wrote this story in 1954-5 in London, he chose not to publish it until after Allan Findley's death in 1982. He included "War" in Dinner Along the Amazon, 65-81.

12 I have not found many original letters by Thomas Irving Findley. The war "diary" is a typescript prepared by someone, possibly Thomas Findley Sr. 's secretary, after the war. The letters are reproduced in chronological order to create a sort of record of what the soldier saw and wrote down. They were then bound in a leather journal with a photograph of Lt. Findley facing the first page. Soldiers were not allowed to say much in their letters home and they were not supposed to keep diaries with them; officers had more leeway but restrictions still applied. This reality of combat must be kept in mind when reading these letters because Lt. Findley was not at liberty to discuss details or express negative opinions (if he had them).

13 As a child, Findley was distressed to be denied the company of this marvellous aunt. As an adult who understood what had happened to her, he was furious. Ruth (Bull) Carlyle (1893-1984) would spend most of her long life in an institution; her husband divorced her; and she ended her days in a home for the aged. Her children, however, have kept aspects of her memory alive by reproducing a selection of her poetry in a chapbook. Some of these poems were published in newspapers during the war, but none of those selected for the chapbook bears the alias she used to publish them: Nicholas Fagan. Findley has said that he "decided that Nicholas Fagan [Ruth] wasn't going to die without having said a few words aloud, beyond the secrecy of her notebooks and letters" (Journeyman, 88), and he created his first Ruth-inspired character in Cassandra from the play Can You See Me, Yet?

14 Findley expresses his outrage in the essay "A Little Town in Normandy," but for a historical account, see Pierre Berton's Marching as to War, 371-89.

15 Again a caveat is necessary. David Max is no more Allan Findley than Robert Ross is Uncle Tif. Nevertheless, with this character, Findley has created one of his most powerful depictions of an alcoholic failure haunted by war, and in this sense he has drawn upon his own father's life and his personal responses to such a father.

16 It is an interesting biographical fact that when Allan Findley died he was cremated, and Findley, in accordance with his father's wishes, scattered some of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine at a seaside hotel where the Findley family had spent many summer holidays. Findley also scattered some of his father's ashes at Stone Orchard.

17 In 1995 Findley and Whitehead purchased a small home in the Provencal village of Cotignac. They had found this idyllic spot the year before after a lengthy reading tour and trip through Europe, and they returned to Cotignac for a few months each year so he could find the quiet he needed to write. In April 2002, he fell in his bathroom and fractured his pelvis. He was first treated in Brignoles but then taken to Toulon for emergency treatment. He died on 21 June.

18 I have not yet found any evidence that Findley visited the memorial at Gurs or the town of Pau, but his fictional town and concentration camp are situated in the same region of France, so it is probable that Findley had these two places in mind. By fictionalizing them, however, he lifts his story out of a specific place to give it a much broader, symbolic value.

19 I cannot pause to examine the nature of these last two images—ashes and dust—but they are disturbing and possibly negative indicators of how Findley saw our present world. Despite his repeated claims that he held out hope for humanity and could not write at all if he did not, his late works represent a deeply negative, if not quite despairing, vision of the future. Just the title of his last story collection, which contains "Madonna," points to this darkening vision. The collection is called Dust to Dust.

20 Findley's portrayal of Edward and Wallis as Nazi sympathizers was uncannily prescient for a narrative composed in the late 1970s and published in 1981, before the degree of the couple's complicity was widely known. For legal reasons, the novel could not be published in the United Kingdom until after Wallis's death.

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Bibliographical reference

Sherrill Grace, Timothy Findley’s WarsCaliban, 53 | 2015, 17-38.

Electronic reference

Sherrill Grace, Timothy Findley’s WarsCaliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 25 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sherrill Grace

University of British Columbia.

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