Ahead of anything else, there is, in the matter of Timothy Findley’s You Went Away, a minor and yet nevertheless nagging question of classification. Why, that question goes, is You Went Away being introduced into the world not as a novel but as, to quote HarperCollins’ catalogue, Findley’s “first novella”? Dorothy Parker thought “novella” a wretched word and promised her mother she’d never use it; I’m with her.
How do you decide what’s a novella, anyway? By strict count of characters? Square footage vis-à-vis the setting? Certainly, You Went Away doesn’t match the 400-page bulk of The Piano Man’s Daughter. But it still comes in at 250 pages, a good 60 pages more than The Wars, which was, of course, Findley’s first novel. If there are calipers by which these things are measured, I’d like to see them. In the meantime, I’ll read in the word novella someone’s attempt to say an unnecessary sorry, to lower expectations, to hedge bets.
Novella, novel, novelty, there’s nothing diminishing in the returns of Findley’s prose. You Went Away is a Second World War story, set in Ontario circa 1942, and featuring a benighted couple in a hemorrhaging marriage. Graeme is an officer in the RCAF but no gallant hero. He’s a broody sort, a womanizer and an alcoholic, a nasty mess. Professionally that means his superiors won’t let him near an aircraft; he flies a desk. Otherwise, his dissolute disposition is a poison to both his marriage to Michael (“Mi” to her friends) and the relationship with his son, eight-year-old Matthew. He’s not a violent man, just brutally insensitive, sullen, and dishonest – all of which, come to that, amounts to a violence in its own way.
But this isn’t Graeme’s story so much as it’s Mi’s: you soon come to hear the title pronounced in her voice. Does it sound like an excuse? An accusation? Learning more and more of Mi’s strength and tenacity, her steadiness and patience, you begin to understand how the statement might finish itself in Mi’s mouth: You Went Away and, Like It or Not, Here I Come After You. Or: You Went Away and This Is How I Coped.
You Went Away is a story of Mi’s war, how she marshals hope and emotional courage against absence and loneliness. She’s another in a long line of compelling Findley women, which is saying something. Nothing diminutive about You Went Away, nothing at all: Findley’s prose is as rich as ever and his ability to inhabit the past appears, as ever, effortless. A few other writers may apprehend the human heart and the codes it speaks as well as Findley does, but with him around, it’s hard to think of them.