Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Youth and War

John Knowles' A Separate Peace is classic literature, the kind of book you might be assigned at some point to read for school. But if you're not, you should read it anyway, and if you are, you shouldn't let that keep you from seeing what a fantastic book it is.

Gene Forrester is a student at Devon, a New England boarding school in the early years of US involvement in World War II. His life is punctuated by stunts and pranks, such as leaping from the high branches of a tree into the depths of a river, an act of daring which the boys imagine will serve as training for their own inevitable involvement in the war. As Gene narrates is life at Devon, he speaks mostly of his relationship with his roommate and best friend Phineas, or Finny, a boy of incredible athletic talent and personality who has such ease among the other boys and the teachers at the school that it leaves Gene feeling estranged and envious. As his story unfolds, Gene's uncertain feelings toward Phineas become so twisted and confused that they ultimately lead to tragedy.

Like much great literature, A Separate Peace is transportive, taking the reader to another time and place while speaking directly to things that are timeless, in this case the turmoil, energy and bonds of youth. The Devon boy's uncertainty displays itself in dry sarcasm and mockery that Knowles relates with pitch perfect dialogue. Knowles has both timeless and timely things to say about global conflict as well. As you read, you may relate to the uncertainty of living through a time of "a perpetual state of war" as President Obama put it, but you'll also have to confront the difference with the incredible scope of war in 1940s America.

The language in A Separate Peace may be a bit more elaborate than what a reader of only contemporary fiction would confront, but while it may be a bit melancholy in tone, it's not at all purple or overwritten. In fact, it has moments of pure poetry. Gene describes the boys locker room:

No locker room could have more pungent air than Devon's; sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was preeminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover.

Anyone who can write like that about body odor is a true master.


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