Personal Battlegrounds

The enigma of Timothy Findley

A former dancer and professional actor, Timothy Irving Frederick Findley, or Tiff to his family and friends, enjoyed performing as a public speaker and, more interestingly, as a writer. He wrote plays that dealt with the problems of his own psyche, and many of his short stories and novels contain stage directions, or what could be regarded as such. His best novels — The Wars and Famous Last Words, for example — have an innate sense of the theatre in their use of dialogue, characterization, and plot. Findley certainly found photographs, letters, and diaries inspiring, but he instinctively went for scenes with dramatic intensity, silences filled with significance, and a narrative voice that could sound like an onstage monologue.

As Sherrill Grace points out in her new workmanlike biography, Tiff’s journals help highlight the writer as performer: “The page serves as a mirror in which he observes himself posing, performing, talking to himself, or trying out a gesture or a phrase.” But in treating these journals as “the connective tissue between the external facts of his life and the transformation of personal memory and experiences in his art,” Grace emphasizes links between the writer’s life and fiction much more than she focuses on the special theatricality of, say, Not Wanted on the Voyage, Headhunter, and Pilgrim — works that play out the peculiarly exaggerated fantasies that are sometimes akin to Murakami’s surrealism and Rushdie’s magic realism. A professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Grace acknowledges that she never met Findley, which limits her ability to truly know the human behind the writing. However, she has a biographer’s bounty in his early journals, two published memoirs, interviews, letters to close friends, and public addresses, all of which help reduce the distance between biographer and subject. And she did get to befriend William Whitehead, Tiff’s life partner and faithful sounding board for ideas, dialogue, and cadence. Bill had an academic background and was also briefly an actor, but he turned into an acclaimed writer of CBC documentaries on science and history. Tiff became his significant collaborator on such award-winning shows as The National Dream, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, and Dieppe 1942.

Possessing a sharp ear for dialogue and a keen eye for detail, Findley heard and saw more than he could possibly express in his writing, though he often overwrote, even in his plays. Grace’s biography (ten years in the making) is cautious rather than daring, respectful rather than risk-taking. At the outset, she carefully explains the hurdles a biographer faces, while holding fast to facts about Tiff’s upbringing as a conflicted member of a white middle-class family in the privileged Toronto enclave of Rosedale.

Born in 1930 and embarrassed by the cultural deficiencies of his youth, Findley educated himself in music, fine art, and literature, appreciating the inestimable value of imagination. But living wasn’t easy. Grace dutifully charts how depression and death haunted Tiff, who was afraid of dying before his time. He had reasons: His father’s older brother died at eleven, after brain surgery performed on a kitchen table. Another uncle, Irving, died in his thirties, following complications from a war injury. Tiff’s mother, Margaret Bull, saw her parents divorce; her brother and father die tragically; her mesmerizing sister, Ruth, treated for madness. As Grace painstakingly shows, many of these ancestors were turned into characters in Tiff’s stories and novels, especially The Piano Man’s Daughter, where he darkened their tone. The deepest darkness in his fiction, however, the apocalyptic horrors in Headhunter, sprang out of his knowledge of the Holocaust, fascism, and abuse. It was as if he had looked into the very heart of humanity and discovered Conrad’s Kurtz lurking there.

Emotionally abused by his alcoholic father, Allan, who cheated on Margaret, Tiff was mock-ed for his homosexuality by his older brother, Michael, another self-destructive alcoholic. Tormented by his own profound fears of failure as a man and as a writer, young Tiff identified with Shakespeare’s Richard III, “the most aberrant human being in all of English literature,” as he phrased it in Inside Memory. The exaggeration would be consistent with other moments of self-aggrandizement, as in his absurd attempt to drown himself, during one of his alcoholic states, by jumping off the Waterloo Street Bridge (now the William Hutt Bridge) in Stratford, Ontario, into knee-high water. Tiff threatened suicide multiple times, though the threats were also, essentially, theatrical, as was the voice in his published journals, Inside Memory and the posthumous Journeyman, where he was able to reveal himself to himself (in what I consider to be a form of soliloquy).

The biography’s early pace is stiff, but once Grace leaves Tiff’s ancestors to focus on how he became a reviser of life and craft, and to consider how his life and career intersected with those of many major artists of his time (the likes of Alec Guinness, Peter Brook, Ruth Gordon, Thornton Wilder, Margaret Laurence, and Glenn Gould), the book grows in colour and importance. Tiff was “an obsessive collector: he tried to keep every letter, gift, book, record, and draft of his many novels, stories, plays, and other writing.” His desk and shelves bore such things as a framed photo of Elizabeth Taylor in her prime, a crucifix, a small stuffed unicorn, family photos, and a teddy bear named Sebastian. This need to preserve possessions predated his life with Bill; it helps to demonstrate how he valued memory and the axiom that we are what we keep.

Through occasional anecdote, Grace shows how Tiff’s imagination and humanist zeal saved him from despair. He “was often angry with this world, most especially with human beings and with himself; he could be violent when drunk and he drank a lot, but he was also full of laughter and joy.” She maintains that he “constantly faced a paralyzing loneliness compounded by his search for artistic perfection,” ascribing his existential problem to conflicts with his father and elder brother (Tiff’s baby brother did not survive infancy), while also suggesting some of the demons that raged within him because of his sexuality. There are interesting nuggets of information on this latter score: a teenaged Tiff seeking sex in parks and ravines; a very short-lived ménage à deux with the actor William Hutt, who remained his closest and most trusted friend apart from Bill; a shadowy relationship with the British actor Alec Guinness (a married man and father), who mentored Tiff’s nascent stage career in London while expecting sexual gratification in return; a failed live‑in relationship with the actor Alec McCowen, with whom he stayed friends; an unpublished and unperformed first play about a young man’s rejection by another young man; suffering the director Peter Brook’s lacerating scorn for feminizing Osric, accompanied by Brook’s threat of feeding Tiff’s carcass to “the Leather Queens of Brighton”; an indecently brief marriage to Janet Reid, from Winnipeg, in 1959 (he eventually apologized for his own sexual confusion in a deeply tender and loving letter to her); and then his long-term relationship with Whitehead, though the two were sexually incompatible and sought sex with others.

The information on Tiff’s deeply wounded psyche rates far higher with me than Grace’s voluminous plot summaries or even her sedate evaluations of his literary achievements. She praises far more than is necessary — even his inferior first two novels, The Last of the Crazy People and The Butterfly Plague — but she does reveal his working methods, an asset in any literary biography. The Wars made him a major literary figure in Canada, but Famous Last Words is his masterpiece (despite what the supercilious British critics felt), with its huge canvas of history depicting real and invented characters and an intriguing central figure, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, lifted out of Ezra Pound and transformed by Tiff’s own genius. Even Tiff’s father praised the novel when it appeared in 1981, and the two finally settled their fraught relationship, though psychological scars remained with the writer to his dying day.

Life often counts more than literature, and, like most biographies, this one gains from sensational episodes. Revelations of Tiff’s drunken binges, periodically violent behaviour, and chronic self-doubts help with portraiture. He struggled to find the right career, giving up acting after stints at Canada’s Stratford Festival and in England, where he was sometimes criticized for overly balletic movement. He turned to writing. On this count, he was greatly encouraged by the American star Ruth Gordon (he played small roles opposite her in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker). Gordon and her husband, Garson Kanin, gave him a typewriter, money, and moral support. Wilder, too, was a big help, assuring Tiff that he was a genuine writer, while advising him, “Pay attention, Findley. Pay attention. That is all you have to do.” Easier said than done, especially when Tiff’s personal life and inner demons were causing a tormenting lack of inner faith. But Wilder also played the role of wise psychologist, urging Findley to forgive himself for being human and to stop punishing himself for perceived failures and guilt — rather akin to what Guinness and McCowen also told him.

Grace asserts that 1955, Tiff’s last year in England, proved crucial for his development as a writer. Approaching his twenty-fifth birthday, he was able to find his own voice in three short stories —“The Name’s the Same,” “War,” and “About Effie”— and realized that he needed to return to Canada. For too long, he had felt like a boy from the colonies, uncomfortable in such a class-conscious place.

In the biography, Tiff gradually emerges as someone who understood, as Grace phrases it, “the slipperiness of life stories.” So he made “telling the difference between truth and lies a central theme in his fiction.” This slipperiness extended beyond his work, of course. Although he espoused and cherished integrity, he preferred reticence to disclosure about his sexual identity, thereby earning the mockery of gay militants who did not take into account his and Bill’s many acts of charity toward Casey House and AIDS victims, or his sensitive renderings of gay and bisexual characters in The Wars, The Stillborn Lover, and Elizabeth Rex.

A just summation of Findley’s life and career must acknowledge the following: he helped found the Writers’ Union of Canada, he served as president of PEN Canada, and he championed many humanist and humanitarian causes while attacking political tyranny, censorship, pedophilia, and other outrages, such as homophobia and environmental pollution. Throughout it all, he was a living paradox, giving rise to a key unanswered question in this book. Considering all his vacillations between “arrogant confidence” and “crushing self-doubt,” did he suffer from manic depression or schizophrenia? After his brief marriage ruptured, he suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized (Grace provides no details), though he ultimately managed, with the help of the psychiatrist Edward Turner and his warm, loyal friends to battle despair and make books that will endure. (The list of such friends is long. It includes William Hutt, the dance teacher Janet Baldwin, the poet Phyllis Webb, the literary agents Nancy and Stan Colbert, Jean Roberts, Marigold Charlesworth, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Graeme Gibson.) And in Bill Whitehead, he found the perfect helpmate, because as Bill remarked (before his own death in 2018): “Tiff needed someone to look after him, and I needed someone to look after.” Their forty-year relationship yields some of the best scenes — dramatic or comic — in the biography.

Tiff famously said, “Once before I die, I hope to know I’ve been heard.” After an abundance of awards and honours, he surely knew that he had, indeed, been heard to advantage. Yet the fatal stalking continued. By spring 2002, he found his heart, lungs, and kidney were failing. He had chronic trouble breathing, walking, and sleeping. And when death did come to him later that year, it was at Cotignac, his beloved French retreat. (His other homes with Whitehead were Stone Orchard, an old farmhouse in Cannington, Ontario, and Stratford, where he was ultimately lionized.)

For all of Timothy Findley’s flaws, he was a true Canadian icon, and Sherrill Grace shows us with Tiff some significant reasons why his life and career continue to matter.