Timothy Findley: The Wars (1977) Literature and War Readalong April 2013

The Wars

Is it possible to write about WWI – including the trenches, the incapable high command, shell shock, gas attacks, rats, mud, facial wounds, the immense body count – and still be original and have something profound and thought-provoking to say? Before reading Timothy Findley’s  The Wars I might have said “possibly” but after finishing it, I have to say “definitely”. This novel proves that in the hands of a powerful writer anything can become extraordinary.

The Wars has an episodic structure but still tells a coherent story, exploring what happened one day, during WWI, when young Officer Robert Ross, broke the ranks, committing an act of total insubordination, shot another officer and freed dozens of horses. How did it come to this? The story is told in a circular way, starting with the end, withholding all the vital information, and then moving back to  the beginning, unfolding every step which led to that fatal day.

I said in my intro post that I was worried the book would contain a lot of animal suffering and it did but in an unusual way. The strength of Findley’s work is that he manages to show, just like Coetzee – another defender of animals – that, at the end of the day, animals and humans are equal. Both feel pain; their lives are precious and must be protected. Being alive is nothing short of a miracle.

This first quote is central in the book and illustrates perfectly what kind of person Robert Ross is

In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour – but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.

The instances in which animals die at the hand of men who have gone crazy or are saved by compassionate men are numerous. Madness is an important topic in this novel. Not just in the sense of war is madness but because people lose their minds during battle or under attack. And often they take it out on weaker ones. Wounded Germans, prisoners or animals.

Many of the soldiers in the book question the decisions of their superiors

This – to Bates – was the greatest terror of the war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do – where to go and when. What if they were mad – or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what of they were brave and crazy – wanting and demanding bravery from you?

Life in the trenches is constant terror, trying to stay sane and attempting to survive.

Robert had only taken eight hours sleep in the last three days. He was living on chocolate bars and tea and generous portions of rum which he took from the supply wagons. His body was completely numb and his mind had shrunken to a small, protective shell in which he hoarded the barest essentials of reason.

The novel is divided in many short chapters which could be read separately but definitely work as a whole. This isn’t a collection of snapshots, it is a novel but this approach of unfolding the story in short chapters, which change point of view, narrative technique, tone and mood, make every part very powerful. Findley is probably one of the most assured writers I’ve read. This could have been difficult to read but most chapters contain strong and expressive scenes. There is far more show than tell in this book, which makes it accessible but also painful. Death, pain, loss and grief are described in a civilian setting and during war, and finally illustrate that love is all that counts. War is mad, inflicting pain is mad and treating people without respect is mad as well.

What came as a surprise were the many funny moments in this book. Rodwell is an officer who saved some injured animals after an attack

“Where did you find the hedgehog?” Robert asked.

“Under a hedge,” said Rodwell.

Everybody laughed.

“I suppose that means you found the bird in the sky,” said Devlin.

“Would that I had, Mister Devlin,” said Rodwell. “No sir – I found him with the hedgehog. They were crouched there side by side when I got them by putting out my hand to secure the toad. We were all there together, you see. It was a popular hedge just at that moment.”

There are many other funny moments. I was glad for those, otherwise the book would have been really dark.

The Wars is populated by likable characters which makes it a painful read. There are not many men or animals who survive in this book. It’s not too gruesome as wounds and pain are not dwelt on but it has many explicit moments which make it an equally beautiful, powerful and painful read.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Buried in Print

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

The review is also a contribution to The Canadian Book Challenge.


The Wars was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel All That I Am  by Australian writer Anna Funder . Discussion starts on Friday 31 May, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

34 thoughts on “Timothy Findley: The Wars (1977) Literature and War Readalong April 2013

  1. I agree with the view about animals and people being equal. Of course that is a controversial viewpoint and it will be lost on some.

    I like the fact that you have highlighted the originality of the work, that is something that I really look for in a novel.

    • It spoke to me because it echoes my own thoughts and feelings. I loved how he wrote “someone was alive” meaning the rat. The only other writer who writes like this is Coetzee and maybe Giono whose book we read last year.
      I could imagien you’d like this. It’s an unusual non-linear approach.

  2. Pingback: Review: The Wars by Timothy Findley | Diary of an Eccentric

  3. I think while reading this book, I didn’t like it very much. The narrative felt choppy and the characters (aside from Robert) were flat. But Findley drew me in from the very beginning by starting the story at the end. I wanted to know what happened to the horses and how Robert went mad. And after I finished the book, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. His descriptions of the trenches and the battles were fantastic. It isn’t the best WWI novel I’ve ever read, but it certainly was interesting and unique.

    Here’s my review:

  4. I would imagine that after living through something as devastating as WWI (or any war for that matter), that you don’t emerge the same, and an appreciation of life would have to be one of the changes.

    I just finished Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and there’s a scene in which the father, who fought in WWI, tells his daughter that he’s prefer his children to keep their heads down and survive. His daughter questions that and says that he can’t mean it. He reiterates his belief and later she questions it again.

    I read somewhere about a Japanese pilot who after WWII became a vegetarian and disavowed all violence. And of course, there is a link between eating meat and violence–even if we don’t have to commit it ourselves.

    • I’m sure it chnages you but I don’t think it will always lead to an appreciation of life.
      The way it is shown in the book, the shock and horror can lead to more and more cruelty.
      It’s like abuse, some survive and would never inflict it on others, others survive barely and pass it on.
      Violence is similar, I feel.
      In the novel, Robert, has a great love for animals and violence is horrible for him.
      I always feel the way a country r people treat their animals says a lot about them.
      It’s violent, to eat meat, I agree but I would feel hypocrite if I pretended I never do. I’m working on it though.
      I’m very keen on reading that Atkinson.

  5. I loved this book. Not the subject matter, of course, but the concise prose that made powerful image after powerful image come to life. (and all without profanity!)

    If a mule or a horse fell down or stumbled in the traces, the wagon it was pulling was rolled aside(. . .) The fallen animals were dragged, still living, to the ditches where unavoidably they burned or were drowned. There were no acts of mercy. There was no ammunition to be spared.

    It’s brilliant and will stay with me a long time.

    • I’m glad you liked it as much as I did. You’re right about the profanity, it didn’t really occur to me while reading.
      It took me a while to be able to say why I found this so great, unusual but still accessible and it’s the way he creates images ans scenes. So powerful.

  6. What a great review, Caroline. I can totally believe being in constant peril like that could make you lose your mind. I met a guy who survived the Vietnam War and said he and his bunkmates would throw knives at each other for fun because they felt they had nothing to lose. They were terrified all the time.

    • Thanks, Carole. It’s an amazing book. I need to find out what else he has written.
      I suppose getting hatrder is a means to survive. Mentally. Some things just go to deep to be left behind.

  7. This sounds excellent, I’m glad you had a good pick this month.

    I’m going to shock everybody out there but I don’t think animals and humans are equal. I think we need to respect animals, and I’m against cruelty to animals and I agree with you, the way a country treats their animals says a lot about its civilization. However, put in a position where an animal and a human are in danger and I can only save one, I choose the human. Without hesitation.

    • It is and I’m sure you would like it if yiu were ever in the mood to read a WWI novel.
      I think I might shock people even more 8 out 10 times I think the animal is superior and knowing my emotional responses I would probabaly try to save the animal first. Unless it’s a child.
      But who knows.

  8. As usual, I am posting this before reading your post and the other comments.

    Here are some comments on the back cover: “The war novel to end all war novels…” “This is a book that stands comparison with any fiction being produced today in the English language.” “A triumph that should be shared by many readers.” Is it just that I am totally out of touch with what makes a great war novel? Some will say yes. However, in my defense, I have read a lot of war novels including all but one since Caroline started the Readalongs, and I just do not see what people see in this book. The opening is intriguing and made me wonder what was going to happen, but after a while I stopped caring. I do not fault Findley’s decision to be creative with his nonlinear style, but it seems like writers did not exhaust straight forward novelizations of WWI before feeling they had to go artsy. It’s almost like they looked at “All Quiet…” and just gave up. You would think that since that book came out there would be some competition for best WWI fiction, but none have come close and certainly “The Wars” is not even in the conversation.

    1. If you love animals, this book is not for you! Much of the depiction of animals seemed to be gratuitous and for shock value. I bet you loved that scene with the wounded horse on the ship, didn’t you Caroline?

    2. The whore house scene was weird and unsatisfying (sorry). The twist ending was disgusting.

    3. The crater scene was compelling, but almost comical. Why would they try to emplace mortars on the forward edge? That makes no tactical sense. Why did the Germans set off the mine and then not follow it up with an attack? That would have been the main purpose of the mine. Robert shoots the German sniper with a snap shot with a pistol at what had to be a long range. Ridiculous!

    4. The diary of a twelve year old was devoid of reality. I have noticed this before in other novels. Why do novelists include diary entries as part of their plots, but have them written as though the diarist is a professional novelist?! Who writes a diary with that kind of detail?

    5. Robert gets gang raped in a dark room. I did not think the book could get worse, but I was wrong. Sometimes pressing the envelope just results in a pile of crap.

    6. Why have Robert murder Cassles? Wouldn’t it have been better to leave the audience debating whether Robert deserved capital punishment? Also, the murder makes little sense unless Robert just went insane and there was little to justify that.

    Caroline, I know I am on a streak of disliking the choices, but I have to be honest. I hated this book, too. It was terrible and depressing. The plot was ridiculous. The characters were unappealing. The writing is average. Thank God it was short.

    • Another one we disagree on. I think this is one of the very best anti-war novels and I liked the way he wrote abiout animals because I think he says a few very profound things in doing so, about humanity and the loss of it.
      I had a hard time though, reading those scenes and, yes, te boat scene was horrible.
      The whore house scene worked for me, it showed us what type of perosn Robert is and although a bit shocking, I think Taffler’s charcater serves a purpose too.
      I didn’t get why the German didn’t shoot them. I suppose because he was the last one there and just didn’t feel like killing.
      Anaïs Nin’s childhood diary – and that of Anne Frank as well would contradict you. It’s a fact that wrieters start often with writing a diary as a child.
      The gang rape was a bit mysterious but like many other things, I think he wanted to show that among the mayhem, there was general degeneration and dehumanization at work.
      The same goes for the murder. In the end Robert lost it.
      I liked the non-linear approach. I find it tiring to read too many linear novels. I’m sorry you disliked it so much but I’m not too surprised.

      • Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault.

        I am not arguing that people are not capable of writing diary entries like in this book, I just feel its rare and used by authors as though it is common. It did not have the feel of a diary like Anne Frank’s does. It feels like a novelist continuing his narrative in a different person’s voice.

        Suddenly throwing Taffler into the whore house scene to close it with a shocking twist was cheap.

        Why would the German be the last one there? They were not retreating. If anything he would have been part of the assualt that inexplicably does not occur. I don’t mean to nitpick, but we have too few novels that realistically portray trench warfare for me to put up with an author who purports to give us the real horrors but shows a lack of knowledge of how war really works. Not surprising for an actor turned novelist.

        Bring on the next one, I’m still game.

        • I didn’t mind Taffler in the whore house, it just served to show how very naïve Robert was. Ok, I guess you are right about the trench scene. I liked the book so much, I didn’t care whether that was accurate but I suppose, no, it’s not. Or at least it’s very mysterious. He needed one scene to show that Robert was slowly losing it as well.
          Anna Funder’s is an entirely different book. I’m sure you will like the writing more.

  9. Nice review, Caroline. I liked very much the structure of the book and the fact that the main characters love animals – not necessarily as pets, but as living things which have as much right to live as humans. The last paragraph is really funny and made me smile. Thanks for this wonderful review. I haven’t read a Timothy Findley book yet. Maybe I will start with this one.

    • Thansk, Vishy. I hope you get to read this, it’s a wonderful book but sad too.
      I think you will like the non-linear structure and the way he creates scenes. Very powerful.
      I’m really curious to read your thoughts on this.

  10. As ever, it’s fascinating to read the discussion here and the differences of opinion. I think we don’t know the half of what people did during the wars, when life was chaotic and lawless and people were forced back on their instincts to survive. Nothing would surprise me. And so I suppose it’s the stories that show incidents of real courage and compassion that affect me most, rather than those full of graphic violence. It’s hard for me to tell which side this novel falls on (though quite probably it’s somewhere in the middle!). I’m really glad you appreciated it – poor old Elizabeth Bowen was quite heavy going wasn’t she? 🙂

    • She certainly was. 🙂
      I’d say this does fall in the middle but I’ve rarely read a book which can be so beautiful and so sad at the same time. It’s not depressing just very true to life in all its forms, the most negative and the most positive, I’d say.
      I know you are not going to read it but you’d like the way he tells the story very much.

  11. Pingback: Timothy Findley’s The Wars (1977) « Buried In Print

  12. I love that you commented on those quietly humourous moments; as I was reading, I was thinking just how essential they were, but then I forgot to note them, because I was so preoccupied by the more overtly complicated parts of the novel (especially the structure and voice of it, which fascinate me…the layers therein, but also the philosophical aspects of the story). Even though I was re-reading, I remembered very little of the novel on this reading (it’s been more than 20 years now, I guess), but I remembered enough to let my bookmark sit for a few days before the scene below-deck (in the underworld) in the ship: that was so brutal (but realistic, I suspect, and I feel that every detail was necessary to make the point). Overall, however, the beauty of the crafting sticks with me as much as the horror of the content; I hope that you’ve encouraged a few new readers to pick up a copy of this one (and I will watch for another book in your theme to pique my interest…I missed the Bowen, but would have enjoyed that as well).

    • Thanks for joining. I wasn’t sure at first if those passage were really humurous but there were quite a few and I thought that’s so excellent as nobody really dares being funny without sarcasm in a novel about war. But that’s just how life is. Even under the most terrible circumstnaces people will try to see the funny side of things. At least I do.
      It has a very complicated structure, I didn’t mention the photographs and how some of the story was told, I felt I would have to read it again to fully grasp this.
      The ship scene was almost too hard to bear… I didn’t see anything as gratuitous.
      I hope you will join again. The Bowen was a bit of a mixed bag.

  13. I’m glad, too, to see you liked this as much as I did. I was really impressed by it and think I need to read it again sometime soon. Findley did a good job of balancing the more difficult passages with other scenes–the pain Robert’s mother felt, his experiences in England, the bits of story told by Robert’s nurse and Lady Juliet–he obviously knew when to pull back, when some of the more difficult imagery was going to really press in on a reader. And I totally liked Lady Juliet’s ‘voice’–she, as did the other characters, felt to me, really authentic. I think I missed half the symbolism–references to animals and such–and so many references to ashes and fire–and in thinking about it now and Buried in Print’s comment above–about the underworld on board the ship–which makes me think of Greek mythology and Hades. Anyway–this was an excellent choice–I don’t know anything really about Findley, but I am hoping to read more of his work now. Oh, and I liked the humor as well, though I think I was not consciously thinking about it when reading–see, so much to this book!

    • It’s very rich and interesting how we all liked other aspects.
      I was interested in Anna’s more critical review and Kevin’s comments as well, as I think, the only fault lies in its not being all that historical. What would someone who know nothing of WWI think of that particular war.
      I loved it exactly because it only sprinkled the story with a feel of WWI but was in the end about much more philosophical and universal themes.
      From what I’ve read some of his books are not accessible hile others are said to be good.
      I loved the charcater Rodwell. It’s only now that I fully grasp how tragic it all was.

  14. You gave the book such high praise…I like it.
    It’s nice how you focus it on animals. I totally understand how sad it is that both animals and humans were badly hurt.

    Love the quote, it was quite funny. Reminds me of the book I am currently reading, I am George from Georgia.

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