Monday, January 25, 2010

Life moves pretty fast.

Current book: A Separate Peace
Pages read: 11-120

One might say that A Separate Peace was partially responsible for this blog's existence. The reason is this: a couple of years ago, I decided I ought to read more classics, and the first one I picked up as a result of that decision was this novel. It was actually worthy of the label classic, and I was therefore converted to the idea that it would be worth my while to pursue reading more of them. It took a while to put this whole thing together, but John Knowles definitely helped.

So, this is the story of a couple of boys at prep school in New England in 1943 and 1944, just as the United States is entering World War II. Gene Forrester, the main character, is best friend and roommate to Phineas, the Ferris Bueller of Devon Prep. The boys spend a lot of time together playing sports, occasionally studying, and often breaking the rules, but because of Finny's (that's how Knowles shortens it, though I really want it to be Phinny instead) charm, they never get into trouble. During the summer session one year, they engage in the dangerous but thrilling activity of jumping off a high tree branch into the nearby river. It happens again and again, and, in fact, they create a club called the Summer Suicide Society that requires performance of this feat as its admission test. Running through the narrative of all of the these activities is Gene's latent feeling of jealousy toward Finny for his popularity and success. While Gene excels at academics, he feels a disparity between himself and his friend, and he is both jealous of Finny as a result, and guilty about his jealousy.

One night, while studying (in order to be head of the class so that he'll feel he's as good as Finny), he comes to the realization that Finny doesn't share his competitive view of their relationship. Insulted and ashamed, he accidentally/on-purpose jounces the branch of the diving tree as Phineas is about to jump off, and Phineas falls to the ground, shattering his leg. After being sent home for the first term of the following year to recover, Phineas returns to Devon the next winter. Gene confesses to him, though Phineas doesn't actually believe him, and the two remain close friends. Phineas will never be able to play sports again, so as a result, he dedicates himself to coaching Gene to athletic success. Gene, wracked by almost constant feelings of guilt, returns the favor by tutoring Phineas. In addition to this, the war is heating up and there's the incessant pressure among the schoolboys of Devon to enlist, seeing as most of them are nearly 17. There is the unspoken fact, as well, that Phineas will not be able to join them in enlisting, and he adopts a cavalier attitude toward the war in order to hide the pain he feels about the situation.

That's where we are. Nothing is surprising, of course, being as I've read it before, but Knowles does a beautiful job of examining those jealous, cruel, shameful parts of human nature that we all share and wish we could hide. Gene may sound like a bad guy, but he's clearly not, and his reactions are so artfully communicated that it's easy to recognize them as impulses that are echoed in the reader's self. Also, can I just say that I really appreciate that Knowles did not go to the "sexual abuse at prep school" place? That was an excellent decision on his part.

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