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Athabasca University

Timothy Findley

Timothy Irving Frederick Findley was born in Toronto, Ontario, on October 30, 1930. The second surviving son of a financially straitened family in the prestigious Rosedale district. Findley’s health was poor throughout his childhood; his attendance and interest in school was erratic, and he did not finish grade ten. He subsequently studied dance and then turned to acting. He joined the original acting ensemble of the Stratford Festival in 1953, where he met and worked alongside Alec Guinness. He accepted Guinness’s offer to sponsor his attendance at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. In London he befriended Ruth Gordon and playwright Thornton Wilder while acting in Wilder’s The Matchmaker in 1954. He published his first short story, "About Effie," in The Tamarack Review in 1956 (reprinted in Dinner Along the Amazon [1984]), and began to consider a career in writing under the encouragement of his friends Gordon and Wilder. Through 1956 he toured North America and Europe in minor acting roles, and after living in Los Angeles, California, in 1957, he returned to Canada in 1958. For a time he made his living writing for radio, television and the stage. He wrote for the CBC television adaptation of Mazo de la Roche’s The Whiteoaks of Jalna (1971-72) and for Pierre Berton’s The National Dream (1974), the latter for which he won a 1975 ACTRA award for scriptwriting with his partner William Whitehead. In 1974 he became the first playwright in residence at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. His first two novels—The Last of the Crazy People (1967) and The Butterfly Plague (1969)—were published outside of Canada; his third novel, The Wars (1977), won the 1977 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

He published eight more novels, three short-story collections, and two memoirs (not including the posthumous Journeyman [2003]), in addition to numerous pieces in periodicals. Findley was active in the Canadian writing community—he helped found the Writers' Union of Canada in 1973 and served as its chair from 1977 to 1978. He was president of the English-Canadian chapter of P.E.N. International (1986-87), and in 2002 the Writer’s Trust of Canada named an award after him (for male fiction writers in mid-career). He lived for over 30 years at his cottage, Stone Orchard, near Cannington, Ontario, but in the mid-1990s moved to Stratford, Ontario, and divided his time between there and France. He died in Provence, of complications from a hip fracture, on June 20, 2002.

In addition to the ACTRA for The National Dream and Governor General’s Award for The Wars, Findley won the 1985 CAA Award for Fiction for Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), Ontario’s 1988 Trillium Book Award for Stones (1988), the Mystery Writers of America’s 1989 Edgar award for best paperback original for The Telling of Lies (1986), the 1991 CAA Award for Non-fiction for Inside Memory (1990), the 1994 CAA Award for Drama and 1996 Floyd S. Chalmers Award for The Stillborn Lover (1993), and the 2000 Governor General’s Award for Drama for Elizabeth Rex (2000). He was a member of the Order of Ontario (1991), an officer of the Order of Canada (1986) and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France, 1996). His name was added to Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2002.

Findley is considered a postmodern writer, because his work tampers with traditionally conceived notions of history and genre. Most of his work is set in the past, whether the Biblical prehistory of Not Wanted on the Voyage, the fifteenth century of Elizabeth Rex, the First World War of The Wars and The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995), and the Second World War of Famous Last Words (1981). His novels often employ famous literary and historical figures as characters: the biblical Noah and his family inhabit Not Wanted on the Voyage, Famous Last Words (1981) is narrated through Ezra Pound’s character Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Headhunter (1993) contains Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Pilgrim (1999) features psychiatrist Carl Jung. His writing often uses popular literary genres, such as fantasy in Not Wanted on the Voyage, peculative fiction in Headhunter, and mystery in The Telling of Lies, but in a way that complicates the formulas of these genres. Thematically, his writing tends to explore the lives of people vulnerable to the powers of mainstream institutions, whether Hollywood (The Butterfly Plague), psychiatry (Headhunter and Pilgrim), or religion (Not Wanted on the Voyage). His characters often suffer violence and mental illness in a sinister social setting, one in which the politically powerful control sexuality, creativity, and intellectual freedom. In this sense his early novel The Wars exhibits many traits of Findley’s later works; set during the First World War, it is a war novel and a romance, but it also examines how people survive the traumas of social and family life by manipulating memory, as shown through interwoven flashbacks, repetition of scenes, and the motif of the photograph. It also criticizes inhuman political systems—the war machine in this case— and shows empathy for those groups (such as animals, children, and the ill) who are at the mercy of those systems. (by Vivian Zenari)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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