John Knowles: A Separate Peace

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.

a-separate-peace

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.

14 thoughts on “John Knowles: A Separate Peace

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post…I am off to the library to find a copy.
    Best wishes
    Lisa Hill
    http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/

  2. kimbofo says:

    It’s always scary re-reading a book that has a fond place in your heart, isn’t it? You’re never quite sure if it is going to live up to your high expectations.

    This book sounds fascinating — have never heard of it before — so off now to see if I can track down a cheap copy to add to my ever-growing threatening-to-overtake-the-house reading queue!

    Thanks for bringing it to my attention and for writing such a thoughtful review.

  3. workingwords100 says:

    I think that I read this book in high school and remember nothing! I need to check it out.

    Oh, I finished reviewing In Hazard. My review captures other elements in that great novel.

  4. Lisa and kimbofo, I hope you find as much pleasure with this book as I did. And don’t worry about this one tipping your pile over, kimbofo; it’s pretty short. Please let me know how you feel about it when you get around to it!

    Isabel (Workingwords), you bring up something I’m curious about: who read this book in high school? Is it read in schools outside of the U.S.? I think it’s considered a YA novel, but to me it’s better than most.

    By the way, here is the link to Isabel’s review of In Hazard.

  5. kimbofo says:

    Have managed to acquire a copy via BookMooch (www.bookmooch.com) — there were more than 40 copies listed if anyone else is looking for a copy.

  6. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: Given the importance of this book in your reading history — and how much you enjoyed your revisit –, you might want to consider moving A Good School up in your Richard Yates reading project. (I’m presuming you haven’t read it because, if you had, I’d expect there would have been a reference in this review.)

    I haven’t read A Separate Peace but had ordered A Good School in my Yates order after liking Revolutionary Road so much. Your review of the Knowles here caused me to move it up my own Yates order — I’d read the jacket blurb and the two seemed to have a fair bit in common. I finished it today and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    It too is set in a prep school (in Connecticut) during the 1940s. The central character (who also appears in two stories in Liars in Love) would appear to be autobiographical. It was written in 1978 — unlike A Separate Peace, the narrative itself is not a remembrance but there is an Afterword that closes the book which acknowledges that the author has been looking back at the time.

    The story is about a prep school (not a good school or a bad school but a “funny” school) and the plot lines are about adolescents growing up and not-very-competent instructors. The sub-text, like my understanding of A Separate Peace, however, is all about the War — and, most important, how could we be sending such naive and incomplete young men off to fight and die?

    It certainly is not as ambitious as Revolutionary Road (nor nearly as long) but for me had the kind of Yates writing I most admire — the quiet reflection and sadness of RR and the short stories, with a minimum of alcoholism and nihilism. If you are one of those people who does not like to read books that are similar to ones you admire, then ignore my suggestion. On the other hand, if (like me — I’ll be ordering A Separate Peace) you do appreciate different authors looking at similar themes but from different perspectives, I think you would find it a most worthwhile read. I’m certainly glad that your review of a book I have not yet had the chance to read caused me to move it up on my own reading agenda.

  7. Kevin, sorry to not respond to this sooner. I’ve been out of town. I’m definitely anxious to see how A Separate Peace works for you. I have yet to move on to my next Yates, and from what you say it sounds like I would benefit from reading A Good School fairly soon to see how it works with themes from A Separate Peace.

    I definitely like reading books that are similar to ones I admire.

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    I wanted a short book before starting The Invisible Man yesterday — and A Separate Peace arrived at the door just in time.

    The book delivered a most enjoyable evening and I am grateful to you for bringing it to my attention. I gather from various posts and questions that it is a frequently set text in the U.S. — if it is in Canada, it is post my period and I was not aware of the book. (Although I do notice chapters sells both Coles and Cliff Notes on it, so I can only presume it is being taught somewhere here.)

    I liked best the reflective quality of the book. While the dust jacket on my copy talks about the “evil” that is present in the book (and compares it, I think wrongly, to Lord of the Flies), I was more attracted to the idea which I think is more central — that often inadvertent or at least not thought through — adolescent actions can produce disastrous consequences. And then, to make an extension, whether much about the War doesn’t fit that same definition.

    One comparison with A Good School that I think is completely fair is how both authors — albeit very quietly, but precisely — document how grossly unprepared these young me were for what lay ahead. One can only wish that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang and their supporters had taken the time to read these two books and wonder how many lives that reading would have saved.

  9. Unfortunately, I think Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld would have read these books and still managed to idealize the horrors as a wonderfully profound ingredient to growing up. “Just look at how these important matters affected the lives of these young boys. Just look at how it made them men.”

    At any rate, I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kevin. I still haven’t gotten my hands on A Good School, but thanks to the minor discussion going on at John Self’s page on Yates, it made me remember my yearning to return to him.

    The connection you make between the adolescent actions and the war is very poignant to me. I think I felt it, but you put it so nicely it finally clicked into place.

    I am curious, however, about your reaction to the last page. While I cannot understand how anyone having read the two can compare the “evil” (whatever that means) in A Separate Peace to Lord of the Flies, I do find the last few lines ellusive and provocative. There’s something there – again more a feeling – that I can’t quite get my mind around.

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: Here’s my take on the end of A Separate Peace. For me, it does not start on the last page but about three or four pages earlier after Gene has had his meeting with Brinker’s father in the Butt Room (great concept, that, in these times). He reflects that he has again heard the generation complaint about the war from Brinker and contrasts it with Finny’s view (“a huge and intensely practical joke”). I think this para frames the ending:

    “I could never agree with either of them. It would have been comfortable, but I could not believe it. Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”

    And so we come to the final page and the ambiguity of “Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.”

    And, as a hint, “Only Phineas (note that he does not use Finny) never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.”

    Without going through the last of the final page, my interpretation is that the “Maginot Line” that we all erect is to define enemies, based on our fear not our reality, who then outflank our Line. Phineas did not do that (he created his own fantasy world that said enemies did not exist but then that collapsed); Gene faced his fears and paid the price at school.

    But the rest of us, including his friends at school, did not — and that is why “something ignorant in the human heart” has created this war — not just the War, but the war inside each of us. That is why I don’t think this book is about evil as evil, it is about evil that is created by ignorance, or, even worse, innocence.

    Which makes your Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld comment even more appropriate.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  11. Thanks, Kevin!

    What you have articulated makes the book even more impressive to me. Fascinating!

  12. kimbofo says:

    Trevor, I’ve had time to read and review the book now. What a wonderful little gem it is.

    http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2008/12/a-separate-peace-by-john-knowles.html

Leave a Reply