Review: John Knowles' "A Separate Peace"

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A quick reminder: Don't forget to sign up for the "Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest--a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy's Day! Get all the details here.

Now, down to business.  Any long time follower of this blog may recall I posted a web article I read discussing "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles back in January.  Subsequently, I purchased the book, read it, and today I am going to review it.

When I first sat down to write this review, my draft narrative drifted all over the place (I mean more "all over the place" than normal!).  I was trying to review the book and answer the issues raised in Metcalf's article simultaneously, with little success.  After wrestling with it for awhile, I realized I had two posts on my hands: a review and a discussion.  Therefore, I'm going to give you a straight review of the book in this post and publish a second post at a later date discussing the provocative issues Metcalf raised in his piece.

"A Separate Peace" tells the story of Gene and Phineas, two fast friends who attend a New England prep school called Devon, reportedly modeled after Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Gene is the best student in the class, Phineas the best athlete, and the story relates the fierce rivalry between the two boys, set against the backdrop of a country mobilizing for World War II.  The separate peace of the title refers in part to a brief period of calm during the summer session--when it seems almost as if there isn't really a war, and Gene and Finny and their chums won't soon be enlisting and shipping off to distant places like Guadalcanal.  The title also refers to the primary conflict between Gene and Finny, and how that is finally settled.

The key incident in the story comes when the two boys are high on a tree limb overhanging the Devon river.  Inexplicably, Gene jounces the limb, and Finny's superlative athleticism does not save him from a nasty fall.  He lands too near to shore and is seriously injured.  Gene is confused and shocked, and much of the rest of the novel centers around whether Gene knocked Finny off intentionally (it is never made clear--and the subject of Gene's intentions has been the subject of many a High School English class) and what reparations Gene should make as payment for this awful act.

When I read this story as a teenager, I remember being stung by it's vibrancy, devouring the pages in short order because they spoke to me so clearly.  Much time has passed since then, and before picking it up this time, I wondered if Gene and Finny's struggle would still be real to me, whether I might have lost the understanding I brought as a teenager, so close in time and action to the age of the main characters, in the intervening years.  Perhaps I wouldn't like it at all, and the fact that I had mentioned it over the years as one of my favorites had in fact, with the passage of time, grown into an inadvertent untruth.

Happily, Knowles' novel did not disappoint me.  Gene and Finny's story is still as real to me as it was back then, and the problems that face these two boys are, I am now convinced, timeless.  Rivalry.  Insecurities.  Friendship.  Wonderment as yet unsullied by how the world really works.

Knowles' does an amazing job balancing many of the stories threads, and deftly handles scenes of great drama that would feel tinny and overdone in the hands of a lesser talent.  I found the imagery remarkable in its clarity; the scenes practically pop off the page, written in prose powerful enough to put you indisputably in the moment, almost like poetry, like in this scene after Phineas is injured and Gene returns again to the river:

"As I had to do whenever I glimpsed the river, I thought of Phineas.  Not of the tree and pain, but of one of his favorite tricks.  Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others to maintain this supreme fantasy of achievement, his skin glowing from immersions, his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might by gently pushing upward with his foot glide a little way higher and remain suspended in space, encompassing all the glory of the summer and offering it to the sky."
Some will argue that Knowles' tends to overdo it from time to time.  I would argue that it is our tastes which have changed, not the brightness of Knowles' language.  In an age when novels are expected to be off and running in the first three pages, it is no surprise that it bothers the occasional modern reader that Knowles' stops and savors the moment from time to time.  My own feeling is that, even considered the rigid criteria of the modern commercial novel, "A Separate Peace" still holds its own.  There was never a moment where I felt the action dragged, or saw a scene I felt should have been cut.

In fact, not only is this a remarkable book, but it is astounding that it has stood the test of time as well as it has.  Despite having written it in 1959, John Knowles' could almost have published it last year, with the Iraq War as the backdrop instead of World War II.  The themes and images of "A Separate Peace "could be transplanted from 1959 to 2009, with young men readying themselves for war, measuring themselves against each other, puzzling over how to leave friends and family to go abroad, to fight, to dare to hope for a safe return home, to wonder at the end of it all what sins have been committed and what price has been paid.

These questions troubled me as a teenager--for fear that I should one day have to face them--and they are questions that trouble me now as I return home from Iraq.  That Knowles' could have distilled these truths so purely so many years ago shows both his clear literary talent and his unflinchingly prescient view of human nature.  His every page speaks to us effortlessly across the years, and will continue to communicate it's wisdom to readers for years to come, I have no doubt.

So I highly recommend "A Separate Peace"--one of the finest examples of American writing I've read in quite some time.

Have you read "A Separate Peace"?  What was your impression of it?  Are there other classic books which you've recently reread that you loved/hated?

**[Author's note:  If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home.  In other words, I am off the grid.  As soon as I am able, I'll make the full go 'round and respond to comments and check out any new followers.  As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I'll see you all in a few days.]**

27 bolts from the blue:

Liza said...

Love, love, love this book. Like you, I bought a copy long after high school to reread, and found it even more stunning than the first go round. Thanks for reminding me, it may get another reread soon.

Heather said...

Great review! This is one of my favorite books; I love it so much. I think you've presented an extremely intelligent analysis of the book's issues.

I recently reread The Great Gatsby, which I hated in high school. I still hated it now. I want to like it so much, but it's just not for me.

Summer said...

A Separate Peace is one of the books that still stands out to me from high school. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and what's more is that even after 4 years as a literature major, I can still recall scenes and images from the book.

I first read Camus' The Stranger in high school; each time I've read it since, it just means more to me.

But I guess I'm angsty like that. :-)

Portia said...

I can't believe I've never read this book. You're inspiring me to pick up a copy ...

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I've never read this book, but you certainly make it sound enticing. It drives me crazy that we are hindered by our own expectations as modern readers sometimes. So often now, we take classics and try to review them in the way we might review contemporary books, but it just can't be done without doing it an injustice. And yet, by the sound of it, Separate Peace would still do well today. The premise reminds me of a movie I saw, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. Erggg...maybe I'm thinking Dead Poet's Society, but that's not right. Ah well.

Best wishes for a safe and uneventful journey home. Be well.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

I completely forgot to tell you: I left an award for you on my blog :)

http://carol-in-print.blogspot.com/2010/02/agape.html

Postman said...

I like the brevity of your reviews, as well as the incisive accuracy. This book has just been moved farther up the queue. After Vonnegut and Faulkner, of course.

Jon Paul said...

Liza--Yeah, nice to visit an old friend.

Heather--Thanks! Hmmm, Gatsby was a fav too. Now you got me worried! Might have to break some Fitz out to check my memory. :D

Summer--The Stranger is another fav of mine. I can still see the sunlight on the beach with the Arab. You'll laugh, but I wrote a paper in college talking about Camus' use of light imagery, good and evil, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Somehow, I still managed an "A".

Portia--Cool beans.

Carol--I think there are some similarities between ASP and Dead Poet's Society, particularly the carpe diem theme. Although less pronounced in ASP, the question of how to live a engaged life comes up now and again. Wow! Thanks for the award! I'll check it out.

Postie--Thanks dude. Faulkner is one guy I have to dig in and take a closer look at. I started "The Light In August" some years back, but put it aside for some reason. Need to add one of his to my TBR.

Thanks all for commenting and for stopping in!

Anonymous said...

I LOVED A Separate Peace. It's definitely one of the few books from high school that has always stuck with me and it's still a favorite of mine today. This book shows just how powerful words can truly be.

I reread it 2 months ago and the depth and realism of the characters and themes still amaze me.

Anonymous said...

I am a High School student and I just finished this novel. I really enjoyed it. On a personal note, do you think Gene did on purpose or accident? We did the debate the past few days and the winners haven't been disclosed yet. I would just like to know what you have to say.

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