Robert Ross, a sensitive nineteenyearold Canadian officer, went to warthe War to End All Wars He found himself in the nightmare world of trench warfare; of mud and smoke, of chlorine gas and rotting corpses In this world gone mad, Robert Ross performed a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death The Wars is quite simply one of the best novels ever written about the First World War

10 thoughts on “The Wars

  1. K.D. Absolutely K.D. Absolutely says:

    I almost did it last night. When I finished this book, I was too overjoyed by its beauty, I thought of putting the book in front of me, stand up and applaud. It’s just that I was not at home. I was in a 24-hr Dunkin’ Donuts outlet and people would definitely stare at me and think that I was a losing my mind. I did not know what to do. My head was spinning with joy and I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

    Come to think of it, as a reader, how do you celebrate finishing a great novel? At the end of a beautiful opera or stage play, you stand up and clap your hands in appreciation. Or even after a movie. So far, in my 47 years of existence on earth and with at least a movie per month, I only saw two movies when people stood up and applauded after the screening and it was not a premiere showing or something. The movies were Dead Poet’s Society (1989) and Titanic (1997) which shows somehow that Filipinos, in general, know how to appreciate good works of art. I was one of them inside those moviehouses. I felt the same way last night. I wanted to express my appreciation to Timothy Findley (1930-2002) for writing such a beautiful novel. How? Had I been at home, I could have hugged and kissed my wife or daughter and they would understand. But not when you are alone with strangers. You know what I felt doing? If only Brignoles, France is just a 30-min drive from the donut store, I would have gone straight there and bring flowers to Timothy Findley’s grave.

    If this novel, The Wars (1977) is to be my basis, I can say that Findley, a Canadian, is a brilliant writer. It is a war drama about a young rich Canadian soldier who joins the army and fights against German forces in trenches in France. Shivers ran through my skin in several scenes. My heart palpitated and my hands shook while holding the book in a couple of parts. It uses first-, second- and third-person narratives, something that is rare and Findley handled it masterfully. The novel is also an example of historiographic metafiction. Finally, it has a strong relevant theme: that war brings out the beast in man and most men in war do not really know what they are fighting for.

    I just do not how to properly capture the beauty of this book. Suffice it to say that I will have to review my Top 10 Favorite Novels list as I think this has to be there.

  2. Dan Dan says:

    The Wars by Timothy Findley is one of my favorite novels.

    Written in 1977, the title of the novel refers both to WW1 and the psychological effects of warfare on the psyche of our protagonist Robert Ross. The war within the war so to speak.

    Robert is from Lethbridge Alberta and the novel follows him as a 17 year old on the prairie, then through the war in France and continuing with his leave and convalescence in England.

    Back home Robert is raised by a cold mother and a more caring father. After a family tragedy, for which his mother assigns the blame to Robert, he immediately enlists in the Army with his two buddies. Sent overseas they encounter the repeated horrors of trench warfare. As Robert sees so much death his temper and PTSD begin to manifest. Towards the end of the novel, he saves hundreds of horses from certain death on the front line in direct violation of his superior’s orders and then Robert goes berserk and is on the run.

    His story is stitched together in vignettes by the historian and narrator of the novel. Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel, Lady Juliet d’Orset, tells the story she knew of Robert from his leave and convalescence at her estate some fifty years prior. As a teen Juliet, she emphasizes it is pronounced “Joolyut”, wrote in her diary about Robert for whom she had a crush. But Robert was romantically involved with her sister. To wit there are some funny voyeuristic scenes from a spying Juliet. The ending of the novel, perhaps not realistic, is heart wrenching.

    I was so invested in all of these characters. And this book is about so much more than war. Findley draws a remarkable assemblage of strong and memorable female characters on the home-front. It is the female characters who tell his story.

    5 stars. Another one for my six star shelf. A beautiful novel.

  3. Michael Michael says:

    Moving account of one Canadian man’s experience with World War 1. The novel is barely 200 pages, so what we have here is no sweeping coverage of the war, nor an in-depth immersion in the horrors. But we get enough pictures of Robert Ross’s life leading up to the war for his character to shine through and then sufficient samples from the stages of his training and long service at Ypres in Belgium to feel very intimately the destructive power of the “War to End All Wars”. Findley uses plain and clear prose to render events that Robert experienced without presuming to know what he felt.

    At the beginning of the book we get a foreshadowing of the story of Robert Ross. An unknown historian or journalist is trying to piece together his life in World War 1 from the time point of the author’s present in the late 70’s. A large archive of letters and photos he is working with seems to present a metaphor for how history is such a challenging task of reconstruction: Spread over table tops, a whole age lies in fragments underneath the lamp.

    One picture captures the essence of the fictional author’s quest for understanding:
    Robert Ross comes riding straight toward the camera. His hat has fallen off. His hands are knotted to the reins. They bleed. The horse is black and wet and falling. Robert’s lips are parted. He leans along the horse’s neck. His eyes are blank. There is mud on his cheeks and forehead and his uniform is burning—long, bright tails of flame are streaming out behinds him. He leaps through memory without a sound. …. You lay the fiery image back in your mind and let it rest. You know it will obtrude again and again and again until you find its meaning—here.

    The story of Robert is that of an ordinary, sensitive man, just trying to do the right thing for the good of his country. He was very attached to his hydrocephalic sister who died as a teen. Having to kill an injured horse on the transport ship Robert is his introduction to the horrors of war, and it connects directly to his father forcing him as a boy to kill his sister’s rabbits after she dies. As a 2nd Lieutenant, he is forced him to strive for leadership, while at the same time he has to carry out orders by officers blind to the realities in the front line. He has no recourse to religious beliefs to help him make sense of the pervasive slaughter this war was marked by. We can only imagine whether he could buy into what one unusually kind officer wrote to his daughter before committing suicide:
    Touch these pages and you have me in your fingertips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing dies. I am your father always.

    Interviews with an army nurse in her 80’s reveals at the book’s outset that Robert saved a lot of horses from a burning barn, that he did something to get arrested, and that he was terribly burned and spent a long time in a hospital. She is also the apparent mouthpiece later on for what Findley is trying to portray in writing this book: My opinion was—he was a hero. …You see, he did a thing that no one else would even dare think of doing. … Well, it was the war that was crazy, I guess. Not Robert Ross or what he did. By contrast, the leaders who started and managed the war: such men are just the butcher and the grocer—selling us meat and potatoes across the counter. That’s what binds us together. The appeal of our basest instincts. The lowest common denominator.

    The only other source from someone who knew Robert was a sister of a lover he briefly had. Her journal as a young girl contains a poignant summary judgment of the war from a brother who also was in combat:

    Someone once said to Clive: do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we have done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I’ve never forgotten. He said: I doubt we’ll ever be forgiven. All I hope is that they’ll remember we were human beings.

  4. Laura Laura says:

    I waited a little while to write this review, because it felt like a book I needed to muse over for a while. But to be honest I don't think the extra time helped; my feelings about this book are still a bit muddled and overwhelming. I did like it very much, although maybe not quite as much by the end as I thought I would at the beginning. I think the narrative structure (although objectively I can say that it works very effectively) kept me from connecting emotionally to the degree that I expected to with the character.

    That said, the theme is one that I found to be extremely moving: a sensitive soul, struggling to both retain his humanity and reconcile his extreme empathy in one of the darkest periods in recent history. I feel a great affinity with characters like Robert who feel deeply, who hate to see innocents (whether human or animal) suffer. As a highly sensitive person who cannot watch news stories (or even violent scenes in movies) that involve cruelty towards children or animals without being haunted for months or even years after, I know how impossible it is to control that extreme empathy/sensitivity trait. That’s a key theme in this book, what happens to a person with extreme empathy who is trapped in the nightmare of World War I, a period which brought out so much darkness and cruelty in so many, and destroyed so many innocents.

    There are scenes/moments in this novel that are so incredibly moving, and as I said above the theme hits very close to home. The only reason that I rated it 4 stars instead of 5, is that the archivist/detached perspective kept me from fully connecting with Robert, despite how much I identified with some of his reactions and traits. While I think the structure works well enough for the novel, my personal taste tends towards more intimate connections with characters. I really wanted to get inside his head instead of just read the conjectures and recollections of others, and be there when the exposure to so much darkness led him to unravel and act in the only way he could.

  5. Mikey B. Mikey B. says:

    I was very impressed by this war novel – one of the best I have read. The more I progressed in the book, the more enamored I became, and drawn into the different settings and characters.

    All was wonderfully envisioned as one becomes immersed in the narrative. The ending is (view spoiler)[tragic (hide spoiler)]

  6. Regine Regine says:

    I hate reviewing Timothy Findley books. The reason is, I'm always at a loss for words because of how emotionally straining it is to read one of his novels. I hate rereading my review of Not Wanted on the Voyage because I realize that my words don't do justice to his books, (and most of my review was a rant about Margaret Atwood.)

    Let's not get off track. I'll try to express my feelings about this book as coherently as I can. I'm on such an emotional high from finishing the book, that I feel like I'm writing an e-mail after a glass of Chardonnay. Drunk-mailing they say.

    The Wars takes place during the First World War. It follows the military career of a sensitive young Canadian soldier, Robert Ross. Robert Ross is thrown into the front lines, where he witnesses the atrocities of trench warfare.

    I know, I know. You're probably thinking that you've seen this all before, just another piece of antiwar literature. But it's much more. Findley really takes it up to the next level; He portrays the hell that is war without making it seem over-the-top, or comical.The story is told through the perspectives of a historian, and a handful of people that knew Ross. The story can often seem fragmented because it often switches from a first, second, and third person point of view, but because each perspective has such a distinct voice, it completely works.

    Although this is a book about war, and there are definitely some BADASS moments in this book, (the baddest moment involves peeing into handkerchiefs, yes you read that right) what really stands out for me is the depth of Ross's character. Here is a young man, just freshly emerged from boyhood. He wants to escape life with a dysfunctional family, so he enlists for war. The little tidbits about the Ross family in Canada had me very close to tears. Robert Ross was characterized as the type of man to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and in the end, this is what brings him to his breaking point.

    Not to say that this book was perfect. I felt at times that the war was just a backdrop to Findley's other themes: dysfunctional families, sexuality, man's relationship with nature, love, mental illness. Regardless, these are themes that he does well.

    5 stars. A must read. For everybody, really.

  7. Rick Patterson Rick Patterson says:

    Simply one of the best novels ever, this is a stunning read because it immerses the reader so completely into the experience of Robert Ross that it's hard to extract oneself afterward. I found myself thinking and seeing and imagining the way he does for a long while after I had finished the book--or it had finished with me for the time being. For some reason there are a great many books that are ostensibly about the Great War (WWI), including Birdsong and The Ghost Road and Goodbye To All That, and this is certainly another on the list. However, Findley isn't just addressing war here; he's thinking and feeling deeply about how to live a meaningful life, how to overcome guilt and regret, how to come to terms with failure, why we have to keep on going even when there doesn't seem to be any point in doing so, who we are when there's no one else except goes on and on. But it's not a didactic novel by any means. The last thing it's doing is preaching. It is as good as we can do in terms of getting into someone else's head and living his bold, tragic, quietly incredible life for a little while.
    My vote for the best Canadian novel of all time.

  8. Brad Brad says:

    This review was written in the late nineties (just for myself), and it was buried in amongst my things until today, when I uncovered the journal it was written in. I have transcribed it verbatim from all those years ago (although square brackets indicate some additional information for the sake of readability). It is one of my lost reviews.

    Fragments. That is the greatest strength of Canadian Literature for me -- the masterful use of fragments. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is certainly the masterpiece of fragments, but The Wars is its stunning precursor. And the compairsons go far beyond the burning deaths of their heroes. But I'll not pursue that thread here.

    The Wars stunned me.

    Robet Ross's release of the horses is an amazing expression of humanity in the midst of chaos, yet its power is derived from his murder of Pvt. Cassles. The Pvt. is shot in the face, and we suddenly understand the import of that other scene -- Robert's rape in the bathhouse -- where he Robert realizs that humanity and being humane is insufficient. Everything is suddenly clear to him. It is not that Robert is some insande beast who loves animals more than men [though if he did, I don't think it would make him anything near insane], it is that animals, coyotes, toads, horses, dogs, birds never hurt him. Or in the case of Rowena's rabbits, they symbolize love. Robert knows humanity by knowing animals.

    The Wars is the natural world triumphant over our technological holocausts.

    [That was a real rambler. I wonder if I was drunk when I wrote that?]

  9. Aloke Aloke says:

    I remember reading a book by Timothy Findley as a teenager in Toronto. My parents had a copy of The Last of the Crazy People on their shelves and I randomly picked it up. I think the cover appealed to me. I don't remember much about it now except that it made me feel uncomfortable. Looking it up I see it's considered a pioneer of the Southern Ontario gothic genre! Not really YA I guess.

    Fast forward a few decades and a Facebook acquaintance posted this link to required reading for students around the world:

    I recognized a few of the books on the list; Mockingbird for the US (Lee, not Collins!), The Betrothed for Italy, Things Fall Apart for the oddly coupled Ghana; Nigeria. Flipping ahead to Canada for the easy get I arrive at Findley's The Wars. Never read it! What kind of Canadian was I, eh? I resolved to remedy this post haste only to be confronted by the difficulty of obtaining a copy of this Canlit classic in my adopted home of New York. The lions of Manhattan growled with disinterest: the venerable NYPL did not have a single copy available for borrowing. Amazon didn't have any used copies of it in my price range (it was published in 1977, should I really be expected to pay more than the cost of a Tim Hortons double double?). Even raiding my parent's bookshelves (transplanted from Toronto to Connecticut) was fruitless. A few Findleys were found (including the aforementioned Southern Ontario gothic) but not The Wars.

    I'm sure there are Findley filled shelves in high schools stretching from Etobicoke to Scarborough but the lone loaner in the Toronto of the South was located deep in the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library and not speedily enough decanted to the holds shelf of my local branch where my wife kindly picked it up for me. (Funnily enough she turned out to have a copy on the shelves of her childhood bedroom, still ensconced in non-Gothic Southern Ontario but that came out much later) The bright lining of this saga of course being that I don't have to worry about anyone else putting a hold on it: I can renew to my hearts content.

    So, ya hoser, how was the book?

    Well, despite the glib tone of this review so far, it was an amazing and heartbreaking read. I'm not sure I would've appreciated it nearly as much had I read it in high school. I recommend it highly. It really is very Canadian, the main characters are Canadian of course and Canada's vaunted landscape makes many appearances: the streets and valleys of Toronto as well as prairie outposts and the ocean off Nova Scotia. Even an immigrant kid whose parents moved to Canada around Expo 67 (Habitat!) can get inspired by it. I guess that's what each nation's required reading is supposed to do?

    Although its subject is the horror of war it's told in an impressionistic way that softens the blows a little; through a series of vignettes that are almost like short stories. Unflinching depictions of chaos alternate with moments of absurdity and humor. These fragments come together to form a compelling portrait. So wherever you are, if you haven't read this classic, or you read it long ago in high school, it is worth your while to track it down. Except if you're in Brooklyn because I've still got it checked out.

    Some quotes:
    Siegfried said a marvelous thing - (Sassoon) - he was taking his troops to the front and they were walking along a road that had been shelled and he saw a soldier lying dead by the road his head had been smashed. It was an awful shock. The first dead man he'd seen, I think and he said that after a while you see them everywhere and you sort of accepted it but the acceptance made him mad and he said this marvelous thing: I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be horrified by a mangled body seen an afternoon walk.

    I remember the strangest sight when the raid was over. I'd been hiding under a bed and when I crawled out and stood up and I looked down the rows of platforms where the tents had been and there, at the edge of the step, sat a pure white cat we'd had as a mascot. It was cleaning its paws! Serenely cleaning its paws.

  10. HyL HyL says:

    Beauty and pain. Pathos and prosaic passion. Heartrending, compassionate, truth. No one says it like Tiff did.

    It's the ordinary men and women who've made us what we are. Monstrous, complacent and mad (Pg15).

    Staring down expressionless, he watched as his reflection was beaten into submission by the rain (Pg18).

    All of these actors were obeying some kind of fate we call 'revenge'. Because a girl had died -- and her rabbits had survived her (Pg23).

    Findlay structures characters, narrative and actions with the precision of a door catching your heel. He builds each hero and heroine, casually giving them memorable characteristics: Taffler, the famous war hero with the fabulously accurate throwing arm; Villiers, the burn victim who, swaddled in bandages and morphine, never gets to hear or see his beloved when she visits him in hospital; Harris, the best-friend and unspoken-love who adored swimming underwater; Levitt, the scholar who brings a book by von Clauswitz to the trenches so 'someone will tell us what's going on'; Rodwell, the phlegmatic visual artist with his odd menagerie (toads, hedgehogs, rabbits, birds); Juliet d'Orsey, the malapert dwarf of a child with her so-beautiful sister and childhood diaries; Rowena, the disabled sister with her pet rabbits; and Robert, the loyal son with his teenaged guilt for being absent during the accident that killed his sister and his inability to save her beloved pets.

    With these mundane attributes, Findlay makes his characters real then, in the tradition of the best sagas, magics them into tragic heros and heroines by twisting away each of these most human of elements {spoiler alert}: Taffler becomes the armless, suicidal, patient; Harris drowns in pre-antibiotic bronchitis; Levitt looses his books and his sanity; Rodwell looses his observer's detachment when comrades torture rats; Juliet cannot forget, no matter how much gin she drinks; Rowena dies when she falls from her chair while feeding her pets; and Robert, who dies as an Everyman loyally trying to live up to every other character's ruined potential. He refuses the option of suicide (unlike Taffler), recovers from horrific burns long enough to be photographed with his beloved Barbara on his arm (unlike Villiers & Harris); he saves the toad and shoots the mad, death-causing soldier (unlike Rodwell); he saves several of the doomed horses (unlike his pre-war teenaged self). But, as with all tragic heroes, it is the things we value the most: responsibility, loyalty, idealism, heroism, respect for life, that cause Robert's fall from grace.

    This is Findlay's jujitsu mastery of the form: not only does he craft a story of tragic heroes, of young boys and girls confronting what von Clausewitz called 'politics by other means', of people who vivify Hannah Arendt's recognition that normal can become evil, Findlay twists the banal, distant horrors of a long-ago war into contemporary, present, tears. In this, the most stunning indictment of war that I have ever read, Timothy Findlay reminds us of the transience, yet constancy and importance of beauty, hope, love, and life.