In his introduction to Timothy Findley's The Wars, author Guy Vanderhaeghe has put into words some of what I have been feeling about the book but have been unable to articulate adequately. I'd been thinking about the story all weekend wondering what I was going to share about it when I finally got around to reading the introduction. My copy is dog eared and pencil-marked from all the many parts that resonated with me or that felt especially important in the building up of the story. I began by taking notes but soon had to abandon this as I didn't want to stop and write out what seemed important. Everything seemed important was the problem.
The Wars is a story of a young Canadian soldier who volunteers to fight in World War I. Like so much of what I seem to be reading lately, it's a slim volume very carefully constructed, spare really, but each part necessary to the telling of the story, nothing superfluous. I've been reading enough war literature in the last couple of years to know that so often these books are going to be harrowing, sometimes emotionally draining and not especially pleasant going at times.
I can see why Penguin has published The Wars as a modern classic. It is harrowing and at times brutal and for me gut wrenching, but it is quite beautiful as well. As I read I was both apprehensive of what was coming but also in awe of what Findley was managing to do at the same time. When I finished reading I have to say I was bereft. Not because of what happened to Robert Ross, the Canadian solider, (though maybe a little for that, too) but because I had finished the book and there was no more. And I wanted to go back to the first pages or even start at the end and work my way back to the beginning of the story to see just how did Findley do that?
This is a story that is filled with imagery and weighted with meaning (hence all my dog ears and pencil markings) and Robert is a complex and at times contradictory character. Attractive, a scholar and an athlete, he comes from a good, well-to-do family. In the beginning he's only nineteen, perhaps a little naive, and is quite close to his older sister Rowena who is disabled as she was born with water on the brain and must remain in a wheelchair. He told her once that she was the first human being he remembered seeing.
"He was lying in his crib and, waking from a nap through half-closed eyes, he saw his sister gliding in her chair across the room and coming to rest beside him. She stared at him for a long, long time and he stared back. When she smiled, he thought she was his mother. Later, when he came to realize she couldn't walk and never left the chair, he became her guardian."
He does look after Rowena, a gentle woman who loves animals. Perhaps it's because of Rowena, what she meant to him and her gentleness, that caused everything that came after to happen. Surely it helped shape Robert, so maybe the choices he made were inevitable. Like all good war stories this is one that vividly shows the absurdity of war and what it does to the young men who must go and fight. It shows how families are wrenched apart and what it does to mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who look up to their elder siblings. But, too, there are moments of humanity amidst the inhumanity and carnage.
This is a story that is much like a patchwork quilt, which is not to belie the genius of Findley's prose and storytelling. I'm still not entirely sure who narrates the story, but it's so seamlessly done that it didn't dawn on me until midway through the story that I didn't know who exactly was speaking, but he is a researcher who is piecing together Robert's experiences in the war and his motivations. This is done through a variety of sources--photographs, trawling through archives and speaking with people who knew Robert. What happens to Robert in the war is a tragedy, but whatever his culpability, he's still viewed as a hero by those who knew him.
I'm being intentionally vague and not filling in any of the details, for to do so would ruin the effect for anyone planning on reading The Wars. The blurb describes the story as, "In this world gone mad, Robert Ross performed a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death", and I think that's really all you need to know setting off. I was happy to note that one of the passages I marked and starred was something that was also noted in the introduction:
"People can only be found in what they do."
And for me, this distills what is behind Timothy Findley's The Wars. The brilliance of the construction to show who Robert Ross was is the beauty of the story despite the brutality, the horrific scenes of trench warfare and the tragedy that is war. For me, Timothy Findley's The Wars, is one of the very best and probably my favorite of all the books I've read so far for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. Certainly it is for me one of the most memorable.
Circling back to the beginning--I said Guy Vanderhaeghe put into words what I was feeling. So I'll end with those. He writes about rereading The Wars on the last leg of a long bus trip where he could feel each bump of the road and was threatened by motion sickness:
"At intervals I would look up to rest my eyes on the surround of blackness pressing against the window, then plunge back into the story of Robert Ross, his family, his friends, and his comrades-in-arms as they whirled helplessly in the maelstrom of the Great War, the war that was supposed to end all wars and didn't. I arrived at my destination with the book finished, strangely exulted and disturbed by an encounter with a novel harrowing and uplifting, a novel that was both a marvellous work of art and a passionate indictment of the first cruel idiocy of the twentieth century."
This is a novel that begs to be revisited and I am sure I will do so someday.
You can read Caroline's thoughts on the book here. I also read this along with Buried in Print and we've been chatting about it behind the scenes. Next up is Anna Funder's All That I Am. Although I didn't finish last month's The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, I do plan to pick the book up once again and think I am once again in the right frame of mind to finally tackle it.