Reading Log: A Separate Peace (John Knowles)

It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.

I read A Separate Peace at least a dozen times, probably much more, between the ages of 14 and 16. I don’t remember how the old, coverless paperback came into my hands. It just seemed like it was suddenly, then always, there. Then, for reasons similarly lost to time, I put it away (threw it away? simply lost it?) and didn’t return to it for nearly thirty years. Until now.

Reading A Separate Peace now, in my late-middle-age but not yet my dotage, I am struck by how well the book holds up (keep in mind, though, that I also think A Catcher in the Rye holds up…and feel sorry for those who’ve been lost from it). I can’t claim to have any objectivity, but then what good reader can? The crux of a response to a book, good or bad, is that very subjectivity. It’s only the books we have no connection to that we can claim to understand somehow apart from our affections, biases and limitations. And, particularly with fiction and poetry, who cares to do that?

I am also struck by how deeply I’ve internalized Knowles’ quiet masterpiece, how many ways the threads of thought I’ve called my own all these years are, in significant ways, the thoughts of Gene, who narrates the book from a New England boarding school that is seemingly the last small place of peace in 1943 in America, which is otherwise being subsumed by the physically distant, but omnipresent, war. My attachment to—my dwelling on—the strange insubstantial substance of memory and how it attaches itself to the very materials of the physical world, my otherness from my peers even as I was in some ways easily accepted by them, even at times a leader, my early onset nostalgia (as Ben Folds sings, “they get nostalgic about the last ten years before the last ten years have passed”)…these are things many adolescents feel, of course, but as I read A Separate Peace I kept coming across small details that were planted in my own world like false memories made real by repetition.

Most of all, my own life has been characterized by the strange stew of longing, love, resentment and jealousy that Gene feels not just for Phineas (I was blithely unaware of any of the homoerotic subtext many have found in their relationship and, assuming it’s there, it’s almost beside the point) but for what Phineas represents: the easy, effortless inhabitation of a position of rightness in the world, of fitting in a world to which I’ve always felt I didn’t belong and survived only by happenstance.

Even knowing what was going to happen with the kind of detailed recall I almost never have for even my favorite books, I found myself crying at the same two obvious spots I always used to. And I found myself, again, yearning for the kind of peace Gene had lost and yet unsure how much of that loss was (is) Gene’s (and my own) fault and how much of it was (is) an inevitable part of growing up and learning that perhaps that peace was only ever an illusion, an ideal thing to be desired but never held, after all.

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