The Wars Critical Essay

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We no longer believe that some subjects are more appropriate for literary treatment than others: nowadays, every human activity, no matter how banal or disgusting, offers itself as legitimate material for the imagination to work on and turn into art…. There seem to be some subjects, however, which have a built-in intransigence to literary treatment because their historical reality, overwhelmingly banal, perhaps, or overwhelmingly disgusting, surpasses anything that the creative imagination can make of them. Writers instinctively shun these topics, it seems to me, and rightly so. It takes considerable nerve, therefore, to do what Timothy Findley has done [in The Wars]—to write a novel squarely about the unspeakable reality of the 1914–18 war in order to make that reality even more unspeakably real. Having read it, we're meant to put his book down angered and disgusted once again by the sheer futility of those four years, with the additional wrenching caused by our concern for the fate of the book's fictional Canadian hero, Robert Ross.

It's plain that Findley realizes he's dealing with intractable material because he camouflages the fiction of his story by pretending that the novel is a species of historical document, taking as its subject the life of Robert Ross, piecing it together from tape-recorded interviews, press-cuttings from the archives, old photographs, diaries, and the like. This technique enables Findley to intersperse his fictional account with grim and telling statistics about the war itself, though, in fact, the greater part of the book is a conventional third-person narrative, a novel, telling the story of its central character more or less straightforwardly as countless novels have done and will no doubt continue to do. But does the story of Robert Ross match, or add to, or make even more dire, the tragedy of which he is a tiny (though not necessarily insignificant) part? At best, it seems to only fitfully: there's frequently such a sense of...
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