John Knowles: A Separate Peace (Harville Secker, 1959)

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 up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.

I’ve always had an unexpected fondness for prep-school novels and movies. No, I didn’t go to prep school or boarding school or anything but plain old public school, yet I find the concentrated atmosphere of these stories works for me.

I have a couple of contemporary examples in the works for the next weeks, so I thought I’d take another look at the granddaddy of them all. Do kids still read this? It was on my summer reading lists throughout school; I think I finally read it in my teens, probably in the late 60s – yes, I read some of the books on the summer reading list, mostly the ones having to do with death. But now that I’ve re-read it, I don’t think I finished it; I think I stopped after the tree incident, because I don’t remember the Winter Carnival, or Leper’s “escape”, or really much of the book at all.

I certainly don’t remember it as gay. And yeah, now, in 2018, it reads very repressed-and-unspoken gay, in a way it couldn’t have read to me in 1968. Putting aside Gene’s repressed sexuality, it’s a novel about jealousy, about wanting what someone else has, about the grass being greener and all those typical teenage themes that last into adulthood. Competition, the foundational drive. Ethical failure, the engine of so much modern literature. Guilt, the universal emotion.

It’s pretty much a classic structure: the tree scene, far from being the end of the book, is merely the inciting incident upon which complications pile up. A dramatic climax – second cousin to a courtroom scene – uses recollection of hazy memories to create a violence that explodes by accident. The denouement that follows includes a major shift in tone, even in the face of one final dramatic reveal. And I get the sense that we’re never really returned to the present, from where the novel started as a recollection. The past is always present, for many of us, even 15 years on.

One of the things I noticed is that all of Finny’s vaunted athletic trophies, the prizes on which his status in Gene’s eyes as a sports superhero, seem to be of the “most improved” variety. It’s expressly stated that he doesn’t have any records in his sports, but he has awards for sportsmanship and cooperation and effort. I get the impression Finny isn’t really as great an athlete as everyone thinks he is. Gene’s jealousy, sad under any circumstances, becomes sadder when based on a mirage. Is it possible to see Finny at all – or is he all image, all energy, all beholder-created impression?

It’s also very much a novel rooted in WWII. The “separate peace” metaphor has its reference in a move seen as a betrayal. During WWI, Russia signed a separate peace accord with Germany, removing itself from the Tripartite Pact. That there was a change in regime – from Czar Nicholas II to Bolshevik rule – tempered the outrage somewhat, but during WWII fears of another reversal, of Russia pursuing a separate peace with Germany in spite of the German betrayal, emerged in a more complex situation.

But the separate peace of the novel has to do with less global matters. After Finny breaks his leg, he decides the war is fake news, sort of a Wag the Dog situation. The boys are facing the draft by the following summer, and have the question of enlistment before them at all times, a question that creates excitement and adventure, yes, but also anxiety concealed out of shame. By creating a separate peace on his school campus, they feel some reprieve from the dramatic induction into adulthood. But for Finny, it means something else: because of his injury, he’s ineligible for the military, so it’s easier for him to not feel left out by ignoring it all.

Do kids reading it now have the understanding of what the war meant, what the draft meant? I first read the novel during Vietnam, a very different war with very different home fires burning. And now, kids would be reading it in yet another war time: a war time almost as ephemeral as Finny’s peace mirage. Very few people, outside of military families and news hounds, are even aware that we’ve been at war for 15 years, that we’re currently involved in a half dozen nasty conflicts with no clear sides and plenty of ambiguous, and not-so-ambiguous, collateral damage. Is it possible to read the book the same way now as then? Is it any wonder it’s easier to read it as a gay novel, than to find a way to put oneself in a mindset of a prior historical setting?

And again, context, my obsession over the past year, becomes central to reading. Does context alter the book, or is that a reader flaw? Can we be aware of the original authorial intent, and still see new ways old messages reveal themselves? Haven’t relationships like Gene and Finny’s always existed – and haven’t they always been the same, yet always current?

So I’ll leave the marble stairs and oak panelling and musty rooms of Devon for a prep school of the 60s, and one of the 21st century; will I find the same thing, in different light?

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