Timothy Findley’s Spadework (2001)

This is an author who has been particularly important to me. In that peculiar way in which someone with whom you have had virtually no contact can affect you more than people with whom you have spent years of your life.

So I delayed reading his last published work for ten years. Now I’m a bit sorry that I did, because I feel as though it’s stood between re-reading more of his earlier works sooner. Nonetheless, I am now eyeing several of my favourites, with exactly that in mind.

I’m thinking of these: The Wars and Pilgrim and Headhunter and Not Wanted on the Voyage (because they’re amazing); Famous Last Words and The Last of the Crazy People (because they were the right books for me just when I happened to read them); The Butterfly Plague and The Telling of Lies and The Piano Man’s Daughter (because I remember so little about reading them that I don’t truly count them as having been read); and his memoirs (because I’d like to pick the wisdom from them once more).

But, first, Spadework. Which I had heard was not a shining example of this favourite author’s work. So I approached it with caution for that reason as well.

And with that in mind, I added a new dimension to the reading experience for fun, reading it in “real time”, starting on June 25; I revisited each segment of prose on the appropriate date, sometimes daily and sometimes a couple of days would pass. (With the exception of the final segment, which took place the April which followed the August 19th segment; I thought it would rob the reading of some power if I left the characters sit unattended for so many months and then read the outcome in the final six pages.)

And I’m afraid that I have to agree: to admire Timothy Findley’s skill, you’d best turn to another of his work.

Still, there are glimmers of what I have loved so about those other books and stories.

To begin with, there is an open acknowledgement of the power of art to transform people’s lives. Griffin is a thirty-year-old actor (the author also had an acting career, which is vividly recalled in his memoir Inside Memory). His wife, Jane, is an artist whose works appear on stage in the productions mounted at The Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, where Griffin takes centre stage.

[There is a slideshow of the festival here, though you will have to see a few student-oriented shots of workshops and community events before the images of the theatre and its gardens appear.]

Not only a pleasure, but a means of shaping the people we become. Theatre, fine arts, literature.

“‘And I’ll tell you all about the time I found an ancient copy of Peyton Place when I was twelve – and my mother came in and found me – only I’d already seen her very own name in the flyleaf!'”

This is from Jane’s friend Claire, who is trying to support her friend through her own personal and intimate scandal.

And then there is the matter of how one tries to cope with having failed at something, at the devastating impact that decisions made in an instant can have on those too close to avoid the fallout.

“But he’s…he’s decent.”
“So is everyone – once. We’ve all done the unthinkable, one way or another. All of us. Everyone.”

And then there is the matter of survival. What demands it, what affords it room to unfold.

“‘You’ve survived your mother, kiddo. And furthermore, you know who you are. And that’s what it takes. It’s what survival is all about. Knowing who you are.’”

And there is something new here for  me to love, because the book is unabashedly and lovingly set in Stratford, a beautiful town that was once a favoured haunt of mine (and would be still, if the journey there still took less than an hour’s travel time).

I don’t need to know if 330 Cambria Street is real (the address of Griffin and Jane’s home) because the way that the neighbourhood is described feels wholly familiar, and even though it’s been five years since I last spent days wandering those streets, I can still remember the feeling of comfort and ease that I associated with my time there.

I can still appreciate the horrors and sorrows (broad and narrow) depicted against this background in Spadework. From the restaurant scenes (oh, I can feel the dust from the crust of a Pazzo pizza even now) to the scene in St. Mary’s Quarry (a short drive away),  I know the way that the light strikes those places at different times of the day and in different seasons. It’s a wonderful feeling to see that unfold on the page and to have it strike the reader’s heart as known.

[The author called Stratford home in the later years of his life, so he knew it well. He once began a conversation with me on the street there, took my copy of The Oxford Book of American Verse in his hands, and planted a memory for me in the concrete of that town, which I’ve returned to countless times since, even when I haven’t been able to walk those streets.]

So, yes, in comparison to his other works, the book feels as though it was written for readers who already knew its author well enough to fill the gaps.

  “The enemy took on a new face – that was all. Where the enemy had once been human ignorance and meanness of spirit, now the enemy was nature’s ignorance of human emotion and its own random consignment of mismatched genes.
Not that Agnewska could have said all this. But she knew it through living out – or trying to live out – what was happening to herself, what had happened to her child and what had happened to Milos, who had turned away from her.”

Had the book been written under other circumstances, I think the reader would not have had such a stark explanation of what Agnewska could not say about the illness of her infant son; I think it would have quietly resounded in the finely crafted paragraphs that I’ve always associated with Timothy Findley’s works.

That sense of inexplicable loss. The overwhelming devastation of a decision made out of fear. The burdens of shame and desire.  These would have been revealed effortlessly.

And, yet, I am fond of Spadework nonetheless. It remains a work in Timothy Findley’s oeuvre “Against Despair”.

In an instant, I would buy tickets for the front row on opening night.