I selected “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles to read as my choice for A Classic Tragic Novel. This was one of three books which I purchased from Barnes and Noble, 7th Avenue, New York, each written by American authors. It is a coming-of-age novel first published in 1959, regarded as an American Classic, and which has been a set book for study in American schools over the years since it was published. It is set in the Summer of 1942 at a wealthy boarding school in New Hampshire.
The story focuses of a small group of boys who have a further time at school before graduating; however, enlisting looms for all of them. Gene is an introverted academic, sharing a room with the outgoing, adventurous, athletic Finny. Gene becomes jealous of Finny, unbeknownst to Finny. During a dare-devil game participate in by a group of the boys, Gene manages to cause Finny to lose balance on a high tree branch causing him to fall to the ground, instead of into the river below. The book follows the reactions of Gene, the eventual realisation by Finny and the reaction of other boys. A second accident for Finny has the ultimate consequence, with disturbance into the future for many of them. Feelings are admixed with the pervasive sentiments regarding war and peace. Finny had a separate peace.
I was pleased I read this book. I thought it captured the effect and foreboding of the War on these very young men, juxtaposed with the further imprint on them all of a stupid act born of immaturity and jealousy with tragic consequences. It was curious to me that seemingly there were no mature adults having any presence or impact on the psyches of these young men; but perhaps this is the norm for essentially teenagers to be anxious about and aspiring to their own sense of agency without adults. I felt affected by the tragedy myself.
The author, John Knowles, had himself attended Phillips Exeter Academy, on which he based the school in the novel called Devon. Knowles then spent time in the US Army Air Forces at the end of WW11 – in the novel some of the boys considered leaving school at their 17th birthday to join the Air Force, rather that wait to be drafted into the Army on finishing school. Finny was based on friend he met at a summer session, as in the novel; that friend was a friend of Robert Kennedy. Gore Vidal claims that Knowles told him that the character of Brinker was based on him.
Knowles other significant book was Peace Breaks Out, set just after the war, at the same school. but written in 1981, so long after A Separate Peace. Knowles seems to have been processing his own response to youth, camaraderie, war, peace and loss.
I was able to buy the movie of the same name in Google Play. I enjoyed the movie as well, another interpretation of the novel.