I was in high school when I discovered The Last of the Crazy People.
Whatever I’d been expecting, it wasn’t what I found; whatever I thought I’d found, I don’t know how I’d have described it.
But I liked it: I started and finished it on a Sunday afternoon.
This kind of day-long reading session made Sundays my favourite day – even still, though now they seem shorter somehow.
I remember reading Famous Last Words when I was working at my first full-time job, sitting with it in the lunchroom and trying to explain to a co-worker why I found it so fascinating (clearly nothing about it, at least not in the way that I described it, fascinated her).
When I left that job to work in a bookstore, the first book I handsold was Dinner Along the Amazon. The woman said she liked Canadian fiction and asked what I would recommend; I remember telling her that I just really liked the stories, but I struggled to find the reasons why.
Years later, passing tables at a sidewalk café in Stratford, Timothy Findley hollered out to me and asked to see what book I was carrying. It was a hardcover Oxford Book of American Verse that I had bought at a second-hand store just minutes before; he nodded and approved aloud.
I recognized him (although the amused expressions on the faces of the young men sitting with and around him suggested that they thought I did not recognize to whom I was speaking), and I wanted then to tell him about the way that his books had fastened themselves to moments in my life, to tell him about the way that this fastening didn’t seem to fit into the words that I knew and used everyday, but I did not.
I read Pilgrim twice. It swept me out of a book-slump (the restless series of false-starts when I might read forty pages of ten different books without really reading a word or settling into a story) and immediately demanded a re-read.
I read it when I was working in the city market and I was also working there on the day that the woman who worked at the coffee shop, who listened to CBC radio during the day, told me that Timothy Findley had died.
She thought it would be interesting news: she didn’t really think that it would matter to me. I remembered pulling a quote out of Inside Memory, when I first read it, to comfort a friend whose good friend had recently died. I searched for it that night when I got home and I re-read the chapter whilst sipping a glass of red wine. I doubt my friend found that quote very comforting either.
The CBC Obituary includes a biography, photographs, interviews with/about him, and archived articles and materials.
Selected Works (not including anthologies, filmscripts or chapbooks):
The Last of the Crazy People (1967)
The Butterfly Plague (1969)
The Wars (1977)
Famous Last Words (1981)
Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984)
The Telling of Lies (1986)
Piano Man’s Daughter (1995)
You Went Away (1996)
Dinner Along the Amazon (1984)
Dust to Dust (1997)
Can You See Me Yet? (1974)
John A. – Himself (1979)
The Stillborn Lover (1993)
The Trials of Ezra Pound (1995)
Elizabeth Rex (2001)
Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Workbook (1990)
From Stone Orchard: A Collection of Memories (1998)
Journeyman: Travels of a Writer (2003)
Dead men are serious – that’s what this photograph is striving to say. Survival is precluded. Death is romantic – got from silent images. I lived – was young – and died. But not real death, of course, because I’m standing here alive with all these lights that shine so brightly in my eyes. Oh – I can tell you, sort of, what it might be like to die.
Once he was wakened in the night – his body made of boards – and heard the sound of what appeared to be a battle over by the trains, and later still, his sleep unregained for an hour or more, he saw the sky light up with the aura of exploding engines. Last thing of all, the sound of one lone truck escaping up the road that ran past the trees, and then the deep and muffled silence of the snow that fell like a dream of snow – with flakes the size of coins straight down out of clouds so low they tangled with the pines.
In the morning there were shrouds of mist, like remnants hung from the branches. Mauberley had come to the foothills of the mountains and surely, now, he was safe. Unless the trees were enemies.
Famous Last Words
Everyone knows it wasn’t like that. To begin with, they make it sound as if there wasn’t any argument; as if there wasn’t any panic – no one being pushed aside – no one being trampled – none of the animals howling – none of the people screaming blue murder. They make it sound as if the only people who wanted to get on board were Doctor Noyes and his family.
Not Wanted on the Voyage
There is no ending to this story. There is only what is and was and will be.
“What Mrs. Felton Knew” Dinner Along the Amazon
It came to him slowly, standing on the curb at Avenue Road and Bloor, that, when he rode on the subway and was recognized, it was not their recognition of him that mattered: but their hope that he – in all his ballyhooed wisdom and fame – might recognize them and tell them who they were. I know you from somewhere: that’s what they yearned for him to say. I know – I recognize who you are.
The only books you can burn are your own. And you have to know why. It is really not so that no one else can read them. It is so they will be gone from who you are. I mean, who you are as a writer.
What you have to learn, I discovered, is how to hide out in the open. That was the bargain. Those were the terms. Don’t. Then I fell in love – a long, long time ago – with Francis Oliver. That was when I made my choice. To live incognito. And so, we never embraced. We never touched. I never held him – never.
“The Stillborn Lover”
Lilah raised the book above her head. “Here!” she cried, triumphantly. “This is where he belongs. Put him in here.”
“Madame?” said one of the interns – pompous and pretentious. “Which of us do you want?”
“Him, of course,” said Lilah – pointing the book at Kurtz. “He escaped from page 92.”
Minds were wandering – into the past – into speculation of what might be a happier occupation than this – into long meditations on the subjects of food and sleep – into the distance beyond the windows, with its moon and stars and its cold wind rising.
The Piano Man’s Daughter
You’re afraid that if you start to put him on paper, you’ll find out you’re in love with him.
You Went Away
In seeming to lie, he struggles to deliver truths.
Names are touchstones. Names are flags, signalling the magic of unique identity – the wonder of individuality. They are a shorthand code that can summon the image of a creature – whole and absolute.
From Stone Orchard
Place affects any writer writing anywhere because you see the world from where you are. If it happens to be the country of your birth – which is to say, the country from which your whole root system is rising – then, of course, place has a doubly important role to play in how you see as a writer. Canada, and more specifically, southern Ontario, provides me with my vantage point. This is where I gain my view not only of other Canadians, but of other cultures, other terrain. I also see the past from here. And the future – if I’m looking. Place affects a writer’s voice because place is where a writer breathes.
A crow flew into the walnut tree, his creaking wings like punctuation marks. End of sentence. And it had seemed a sentence – Loretta’s life. It is said that anorexia, if not an illness, is more than a serious condition – and Loretta had been governed by it as if she had become an occupied country, unaware that capitulation had taken place, though it so clearly had.
And the answers lie beyond those doors, beyond the books we read – in ourselves and in the way we can learn, through reading fiction, how to deal with chaos.
…if you’re a fiction writer – most of you is already out there, somewhere; chopped up in little bits and hidden (or not hidden) in your books. Fragments. Not that you’ve put yourself there consciously. But your energy is there. Something of your own character – something of your own make-up goes into the character and make-up of everyone you write. And the rest of you is private. Mostly. So obliquely private that it’s very hard to get at. Especially if you yourself are the questioner.
No one can tell the truth about themselves. It is quite impossible.
…the only reason a person should become a writer is the absolute necessity – the absolute need to make the making of fiction the passion of your working life.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit is based upon a desire for garden vegetables that verges on the manic. It tells the story of an individual who is willing to give up its life for a carrot stick.
Perhaps the ghosts of those who sat at the table have departed with it, though I think what we inherit is the table’s spirit – and with that, all the others. [...] The laughter and the conversation never end – and the voices will go on forever. The table, after all, is sitting in my mind – a fiction, made of the best realities – the ones we keep alive by fixing them with love.