Monday, November 3, 2008

November Reading

For November's novel, I've picked a Canadian author: Timothy Findley. If you ask someone what their favourite Findley novel is, assuming they have read Findley, they will probably say Not Wanted on the Voyage or even The Telling of Lies, but I keeping with monthly themes (and, it seems, an unintended theme of sex), I've picked:

The Wars (by Timothy Findley).
Cliché, I know, but hey, I could have picked Private Peaceful (I don't care if it is meant for the twelve-plus crowd, it's one of my all-time favourites).
The Wars, despite its name, is about much more than war. Although the first world war is the dominant event and element, and it contains much of the same themes as war literature -- the senselessness and futility of war, the disconnect between those giving orders and those fighting, homoerotic undertones -- historiography and gender roles are the dominant themes.

Typically, when one talks about "gender roles" in literature, especially literature written before the mid-twentieth century, it is from a feminist perspective. The Wars, however, was written in 1977, well after the second wave of feminism. And hey, if women can question their traditional role in Western society, can't men? The Wars looks at gender roles from what is sometimes called a masculinist perspective, which is more the companion of feminism than its opposite.

What is masculinity? Is it rigidly defined, or is the word polysemous? With words like "metrosexual" in the modern lexicon, we have fuzzier definitions of gender roles, but in 1917, things were pretty clear. Findley subverts traditional gender roles in this novel (consider the many meanings of the line from which the novel takes its name, "And this was what they called the wars."). He presents "successful" and "unsuccessful" masculinities. Successful ones are most often presented in terms of being a caretaker, and not necessarily in the financial sense. Robert Ross, the main character, is his sister's caretaker, and later, a caretaker of various animals. His father is at his best as a caretaker, rocking his wife or reading to his children. Most of the military officers, in their roles as caretakers of a sort, fail in their occupations. Unsuccessful masculinities are presented as vain attempts to fit the traditional mold. Robert, in his attempts to be "manly", finds only frustration at every turn. Even his role model of manliness is caught having kinky gay sex before Robert even makes it across the Atlantic. The heterosexual relationships Robert has are at best awkward and at worst violent.

Anyone who has studied war literature, especially war poetry, knows that homoerotic undertones are fairly common. In The Wars, even homoeroticism is complicated (for poor Robert, even masturbation is weird and creepy). Homosexuality expressed physically is depicted as horrifying, while mere homosexual feelings are confusing -- which of course is not surprising, considering this is 1917. The only person who seems to understand man-on-man love is little Juliet d'Orsey.

As much as the traditional gender roles of men are frustrated in The Wars, women get a similar treatment. Mrs. Ross, while her husband plays caretaker, responds with a helpless kind of anger to most of the events in the novel. Barbara d'Orsey acts like a playboy, moving from one good-looking man to the next with little regard for the emotional damage she causes. She uses men for sex as long as it is convenient for her; once a soldier loses his good looks and strong arms to the battle, she moves on. She is presented not so much as an "evil" character as a foil; she genuinely does not seem to understand what she's doing. Her little sister Juliet, on the other hand, acts like a fly on the wall and can observe sexual relationships objectively, being too young to have one herself.

As for the historiography of The Wars. The Wars presents history as a series of puzzle pieces to be put together, or rather as a series of disjointed fragments which overlap and leave gaps. The narrator is an unnamed individual who is trying to piece together the story of Robert Ross for reasons we are not told. Essentially, The Wars is saying that history is unknowable in its true and unadulterated form. Narratives inevitably only present one perspective, sometimes a thoroughly incomplete ones. This has plenty of implications for both war and gender roles.

If you like war literature and/or homoerotic themes but don't have time to read a whole book, check out some war poetry. Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfrid Owen is a personal favourite, but you can't go wrong with any Owen, Sassoon, or Hardy. Alternatively, if you like combinations of hilariousness and anti-war sentiments, get a good modern translation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata.

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