A Separate Peace by John Knowles (1959) Scribner (2003) 204 pp
A Separate Peace (1959) might be the first book that made me recognize the deep potential of books. I still remember where I was when I read it — the lighting, the temperature, the silence. Since then, when asked what some of my favorite books are, in my very long reply I often say A Separate Peace. But recently I realized that I didn’t know if it still was one of my favorite books because I couldn’t remember anything that happened in it other than two things, neither of which was World War II (yes, it’s been a while). I decided to revisit it, scared that I might kill off one of my favorite books if it didn’t live up to my memories of how I felt when reading it.
Imagine my delight, then, when I sat down and read the first two paragraphs and knew that at the very least I was in the hands of a gifted writer:
I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.
I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.
Here we meet Gene Forrester revisiting his old school in New Hampshire fifteen years after he left. Though this is a bildungsroman, and a fairly nostalgic one at that, we know from the beginning that this is not going to be a sentimental young adult novel:
Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.
In the summer of 1942, Gene was sixteen years old, just on the cusp of entering the War for which all of the seventeen year olds are preparing. Notwithstanding this and the omnipresent news of the War, to Gene the War doesn’t seem real. Other things are more relevant, like the simple studies and games typical to sixteen-year-old boys. Gene has the fortune of being roommates and best friends with Phineas (no last name, but he’s usually called Finny), a natural charmer and the best athlete at Devon, perhaps the best athlete Devon’s ever seen.
Finny embodies innocence and gusto. He approaches sport expecting to be the best, and he gets his satisfaction from doing his best, not by doing better than someone else. Indeed, Finny doesn’t seem to be competing with anyone in the many sports he invents and plays. This is important when contrasting Finny to Gene. Gene is good at sport, but not as good as Finny. However, Gene is perhaps the best student at Devon, while Finny is very poor. In his zeal for life, Finny sets up daily activities for him and Gene and the others. The tension is set when Finny gets Gene to go to the beach the night before a big trigonometry test. After failing the test, Gene realizes that Finny is attempting to sabotage him, that on the overall balance of sports/academics Gene is ahead so Finny wants him to fail. Resentful, Gene doubles his efforts on academics while trying not to let Finny realize that he knows what’s going on. In a very sad moment in the early pages, Gene finds out that he is mistaken about Finny. Finny does not want Gene to fail. On the contrary, he expects Gene to be the best. He only thought that academics came naturally to Gene, like sports to himself, so he never expected his activities to get in the way.
In the moment of realizing this, Gene recognizes his true position against Finny — he is very low indeed. And he cannot accept this. In a moment that changes everything, Gene purposefully tries to defeat his best friend who has become his personal enemy.
That’s all pretty soon in the book, but I don’t want to give away too much more in case you haven’t read it. It’s fairly short, so the payback per page is very high — you should read it.
What I want to talk about now is that aspect of the book that I had completely forgotten about: World War II. This book never has a scene that depicts the fighting in the war. There are no guns or jeeps. Yet the War pervades everything. Though these boys are in school doing typical schoolboy things, the war still finds them in the way people look at them:
I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We were registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations. No one had ever tested us for hernia or color blindness. Trick knees and punctured eardrums were minor complaints and not yet disabilities which would separate a few from the fate of the rest. We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.
Though none of these boys fires a shot, by the end of the novel all have moved from this innocent state. The war is a nice vehicle to describe what happens to these boys when they are confronted with that thing that makes them grow up, lose their innocence. And that brings us to the magnificent last page which is one of those endings that warps the whole book, making it more real and more sinister than could be expected.