Books

Still angry, after all these years

John Bemrose September 6 1999
Books

Still angry, after all these years

John Bemrose September 6 1999

Still angry, after all these years

Books

John Bemrose

Ensconced in his sunny new condominium in Stratford, Ont.—and pausing only to light a cigarette or take a sip of wine—novelist Timothy Findley is doing what he does best: being eloquent. Sentence after sentence rolls out in the rich, dramatizing voice of the actor he once was. He is talking of the loss of his beloved farm near Cannington, in the eastern part of the province. He and his longtime partner and literary manager, Bill Whitehead, needed something more manageable, he explains: the two of them are approaching 70 (Findley turns 69 this fall). They have also just bought a small house in Provence, where they hope to spend as much time as possible. So they have sold their beloved Cannington property—which Findley celebrated last year in his book From Stone Orchard—to National Ballet star Rex Harrington. And now they make their Canadian headquarters in this comfortable labyrinth of rose and blue rooms freighted with the memorabilia of a literary lifetime.

In the hall hangs the cover art for Findleys many acclaimed books, including The Wars, his 1977 masterpiece of the First World War, and Headhunter, his 1993 bitter futuristic portrait ofToronto. An alcove holds a terra cotta bust of Findleys onetime ballet teacher, Janet Baldwin (as a young man he hoped to dance professionally, before back problems deflected him into the theatre). Nearby, the farm is recalled in an oil painting of an old elm tree under which cows were once milked. “It kills me to think of the farm,” he says with a burst of feeling. “We had it for more than 35 years. But it’s gone!” Yet, whatever ghosts stalk the writer, the present

is still of consuming interest. He is currently absorbed by his new play, Elizabeth Rex, which will receive its world première at next year’s Stratford Festival. The author has already begun the process of revision with the director, Martha Henry, and expects to be fully involved in its development over the winter. He talks excitedly of its fictional meeting between England’s Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s troupe of actors. It seems that the queen—who is accustomed in her job to acting with kingly decisiveness—gives some lessons in manliness to the young actor for whom Shakespeare created the roles of Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. And he, in turn, teaches her what it is to be a woman.

But the biggest item on Findley’s plate is his just-released novel, Pilgrim (HarperCollins), an Orlando-like tale of a man who cannot die, surviving through the ages in a variety of identities. The writer has arranged both the Canadian and British editions on a coffee table, and seems as proud of the book as any new father. He and Whitehead will soon set out on a two-month Canadian tour to promote it: an exhausting gauntlet of airplane travel and book-signings in stores from St. John’s, Nfld., to Victoria. “We won’t be able to get to France until the fall of 2001,” Findley laments. Prompted by Whitehead, the writer admits that he means the fall of2000: “I’m afraid I’m dyslexic with numbers.”

Findley says the idea for Pilgrim first cropped up 20 years ago, when he and Whitehead were staying in “a magical old hotel” on the Maine coast. There they witnessed the sad spectacle of the once popular American novelist John Knowles living through the last stages of alcoholism. Followed everywhere by his

keepers, he spent his evenings in the dining room, refusing food and staring morosely into his drink. “I couldn’t take my mind from him, let alone my eyes,” Findley recalls. He speculated that Knowles was in despair because, just at the point when he had brought his work to perfection, it had become unfashionable. Knowles eventually -became the seed for Pilgrim, the 7V

hero of Findley’s new novel. An immortal man, he has borne I witness to the repeated follies of f I the human race—which refuses f I to learn from its mistakes and 11 grow either wiser or kinder. Pil11 grim loses heart at the world’s obtuseness, and when the novel opens in London in 1912, he is trying—unsuccessfully—to kill himself. A friend takes him to the famed Biirgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where he becomes the patient of Carl Jung.

The two engage in a fascinating duel of wills, as Jung tries to penetrate the other man’s protective shell of silence. Their batde leads the psychiatrist to invent his seminal theory of the collective unconscious—the vast world-mind in which all human beings share. It is a lovely irony that Jung dreams up this theory because he fails to understand what Pilgrim ultimately tries to tell him: that he really has lived forever, and so carries inside him a memory of all of civilization. Convinced that Pilgrim is mad, Jung cannot take what he says literally. He sees Pilgrim’s testimony as a kind of metaphor—and so arrives at his own unique view of the human mind.

Findley has marvellously re-created the complex world of the Biirgholzli, right down to the claustrophobic

Timothy Findley’s new novel, Pilgrim, reiterates one of his recurring themes—outrage at the boneheadedness of the human race

atmosphere of its baths and the competitive jealousies of its doctors. And he has shaped a wholly believable and sympathetic portrait of Jung—not an easy task at a time when his reputation is split between the idealizing of his followers and the acrimony of his detractors. Pilgrim himself is less winning, partly because he is dominated by disgust and anger. In the end, escaping his keepers, he becomes a force of pure destruction.

In fact, the character of Pilgrim reflects a powerful, driving current of anger found throughout Findleys fiction: a kind of Swiftian outrage at the perpetual cruelty and boneheadedness of the human race. “Pilgrim,” says Findley, “is the person I try to avoid in myself.” But a few moments later, he lets that person out. Suddenly striking the arm of his chair, the writer exclaims rhetorically: “What in the hell is the difference between this moment in time and the moment when the Trojan War was raging? Nothing. Clearly, we have

learned nothing. We’re got all these marvellous gifts we’ve been given—but were still killing everything in sight. We’re still killing one another. We’re still not solving our problems. It’s endless!” Findley says he has to fight his own angry pessimism and sense of helplessness. “Otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the point of living if you’re not going to do anything about these problems? So you have to go on writing, you have to go on dancing or singing or whatever it is you do: it’s the only sane thing you can do.” Does he ever contemplate giving up writing? “Oh, sure,” he says, “but I know I never will. I’m just too provoked. And besides,” he adds with a smile, “Bill wouldn’t let me. He’d lock all the wine away.”

The conversation drifts to the new house in Provence. “It’s very small,”

Findley says, “but it has a beautiful cascading, terraced garden. And we’ve turned the garage into a workshop for me.” His day begins slowly: “I sit on the john far too long, and do crossword puzzles. Then I might read a little or take a shower.” By noon, after a light lunch, he is ready to work. He writes—always in longhand—until nine or 10 at night. Then after supper, Whitehead reads the pages back to him: “I love to hear it. It makes me safe to know that the rhythms are right.”

As he weaves a spell of life in Provence,

Timothy Findley makes the literary life sound idyllic, as if the demons of his anger were far away. E3