Restrained and careful writing; curiously ignores testosterone
I am not convinced that John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is quite the enduring classic and exploration of adolescence as some reviews of the time suggested, or continue to suggest. Originally published in 1959, with a setting in 1942 and 1943, at a privileged boys’ boarding school in New Hampshire, the background is the draft into the second world war already looming or having happened, for some of the older boys, and focuses on the boys too young – yet- for draft, but not by much.
The book concerns a group of initially 16 year old boys and specifically the complex friendship between 2 of them, charismatic, golden, charmed, rebellious Phineas, hero athlete, successful effortlessly, and his best friend Gene, darker, more intelligent, more conventionally aspirational, more biddable. The book primarily explores complex admiration and jealousy at the heart of friendship, comradeship and competition, set against the conflicts around being a hero, – or seeing through the pomps of the heroic myth sold to young men, particularly in war-time.
I believe I came to this on the back of a ‘customers who read, also read’ link, when I was reading (and intensely disliking) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules Of Attraction, a later set exploration of privileged youth, which I found vapid and shallow.
Knowles is certainly neither, but there is a curious sense, for me, of an author who curiously side-steps one of the major obsessions of boys (or girls) on the verge of becoming (in society’s eyes, the biology of it having happened a little earlier) men or women. Namely, how much is driven by both an overt and a covert setting of agenda by sexual hormones.
It is astonishing that SEX appears to play no part at all in the interior monologues or exterior conversations of our privileged band of brothers – there is, a degree, perhaps of hidden homoeroticism, but if feels more as if sex has been ring-fenced by the author. Inevitably this set me wondering whether the author ignoring sex in any overt way perhaps reflected the mores of the time towards same sex relationships.
Reading various impassioned one star reviews of this (mainly, it appears, from young boys and girls given this in school as ‘classic’ writing for their age group) it is not difficult to see that such a huge omission (sex firmly unaddressed)makes identification hard. Some writers long past those hormone fuelled times can still remember and write from that place, but Knowles ignores it for reasons one can only surmise.
The book was later made into a film (twice) with no doubt the ringfenced sexual element brought more into focus but was, by all accounts, a perfectly missable experience, both times, despite the author himself having involvement.
There was much I did enjoy, very much, the complexities of these friendships, the fact that the other is ultimately unknowable, the effect of guilt, the looking back to a golden age which was illusion, and the ever present subtext of society preparing the young to be sacrificed in war, but for me the complete non-existence of anything expressed about sexuality at all, struck an unreal note. A cerebral exploration rather than one which is both cerebral and embodied