Thursday, October 3, 2013

Briefly: John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

Knowles, John, A Separate Peace, London: Secker & Warburg, 1959
Knowles, John, A Separate Peace, NY: Bantam, 1969 (my copy)

A Separate Peace at Goodreads
A Separate Peace at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Having been educated in Canada, neither A Separate Peace nor its author John Knowles were familiar to me until a stranger at a book fair recommended the novel long after I had finished high school. South of the border, of course, the novel has been taught in secondary schools along with other notable American modern novels featuring teen protagonists, such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both of which are familiar to public Canadian high schools). Despite being so recognizable geographically, A Separate Peace was turned down by several US publishers before finding a home with the large UK publishing house Secker & Warburg. Perhaps the British sensibilities of the 1950s, not long since devastated by the war, recognized many of the topical aspects of the boarding school amid war conflict. Or perhaps the boarding school experience, being so much more common at the time in the UK, made it more accessible to the general reading public. Whatever it was that helped launch the eventually popular American novel overseas, what appeals to me most in A Separate Peace is not the plot nor the teen anxieties, however extreme, but the chaos of structured life bowled over by war. International conflicts only highlight the natural conflicts found in closer communities, and the sad reality that these boys are being educated and trained in the civilized world of boarding school only to be released to their death as soldiers. This reality is more devastating than the plot-entwined tragedy our protagonist encounters. Moreover there is a striking contrast between living such an isolated existence when all focus, your own included, is on international conflict.

Protagonist Gene Forrester experiences a series of personal tragedies as he slowly discovers his interpretation of reality is flawed. Believing that friend Phinneas ("Finny") is threatened by and attempting to subvert his own successes, Gene fights a passive battle that generates anxiety and guilt, not to mention tragedy. The notion of a skewed concept on reality is effective within a reality that is experiences a world at war. If such incredible, large-scale devastation is possible, then so are the infinitesimal conflicts between recent friends.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the novel, and the ideas of a shifting view of reality is what raises it to its level. Granted the plotting and central themes are well developed and tightly woven into the fabric of the novel, it is these secondary elements that make the core so much more evocative.

A Separate Peace is linked to author Knowles's personal experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, New Hampshire), and ties in with other, shorter works. The work was initially spawned from a short story titled "Phineas," featuring the charismatic Finny, while similar themes along with the boarding school setting appear in other works, such as the short story "A Turn in the Sun" (Story #4, 1953). I am not familiar with Knowles's other novels, and it appears few are, as the man could never achieve the popularity of his first book.

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