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Saturday, December 22, 2018

We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is a story about friendship, rivalry, and what war (or the possibility of it) does to a generation of young men. Our narrator is Gene, a student at the Devon School (situated in a similar physical location to the non-fictional Philips Exeter School). He is spending the summer at the school with his friend Phineas and a small group of boys, and while they have some responsibilities, they find that most of the rules that summer are dramatically relaxed, and they have a sort of kingdom unto themselves. If you haven't read this book, I don't want to spoil it for you, because there's a rather central piece of plot that's critical to the whole book. Well. I've decided. Even though I'm in the "spoiler" section, I'm not going to tell you. You'll just have to read it yourself. Let's just say that the story starts with two young men and ends with one. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

More than anything, this book made me miss the state of New Hampshire. While I was living there, I loved many things - my work, my students, the epic snowfalls - the thing I fell in love with more than anything else was the actual state itself. New Hampshire, if you haven't been, is a stunning state, and the lines in the book about 'the open New Hampshire sky' and 'the north country' made me miss it dearly. So consider this blob a love letter to you, NH. 

See you on the quad in fifteen!
Gene is consistently doing what Phineas tells him to, and Phineas's way of expecting behaviors reminded me very much of a certain friend of my sister's (and now mine) who has a similar ability. She used to text my sister in college with things like, "Looking forward to throwing frisbee - see you on the quad in fifteen!" And she would expect her throwing partner, regardless of my sister's previous plans or desires. Here's an example of this with Gene:
At that time it would never have occurred to me to say, 'I don't feel like it tonight,' which was the plain truth every night. I was subject to the dictates of my mind, which gave me the maneuverability of a strait jacket. 'We're off, pal,' Finny would call out, and acting against every instinct of my nature, I went without a thought of protest.
Phineas is really the star of this book, so I wanted to share some lines that encapsulate him. Here are a few I liked:
  • Although he was rarely conscious of it, Phineas was always being watched, like the weather.
  • Finny had tremendous loyalty to the class, as he did to any group he belonged to, beginning with him and me and radiating outward past the limits of humanity toward spirits and clouds and stars.
  • To Gene - "You never waste your time. That's why I have to do it for you." heh heh heh.
  • Phineas bought things only on impulse and only when he had the money, and since the two states rarely coincided his purchases were few and strange. I love this sentence so much. 
It's not clear to me if this is on purpose, but Gene is a pretty unlikable dude. He spends some of the book thinking Phineas is plotting against him, then decides that isn't happening, then can't really undo the thing he does while he's laboring under his false delusions. Unfortunately, I think these are two lines that capture him well: 
  • Another boy, Leper(Lepellier), on Gene - "You always were a lord of the manor, weren't you? A swell guy, except when the chips were down. You always were a savage underneath."
  • Gene, on Phineas - "Once again I had the desolating sense of having all along ignored what was finest in him."
The war
The war is really the other star of this book. The novel unfolds in the years 1942-43, and the war is a permanent lurking presence, just around the corner for the young men and in every way expected. I thought it was fascinating (and disturbing) how Gene describes later that this time really framed his entire perception of the world. 
The war was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere.
It is this special America, a very untypical one I guess, an unfamiliar transitional blur in the memories of most people, which is the real America for me.
America has fought in many wars in my lifetime, but none that involved drafting, and none which were so all-consuming as the world wars were. It feels really important to me that we remember what that felt like, if for no other reason than that we fight like hell to keep it from happening again. Here are a few things that felt like "truisms" for Gene.
  • The war will always be fought very far from America and it will never end. This sentence could be true for several of the conflicts and wars we've engaged in, unfortunately.
  • Sixteen is the key and crucial and natural age for a human to be, and people of all other ages are ranged in an orderly manner ahead of and behind you as a harmonious setting for the sixteen-year-olds of this world. 
  • Everyone listens to news broadcasts five or six times every day. Amusingly, my only reference point for this was 'Potterwatch'. I mean, I listen to NPR on the regular, but not quite that often.
  • There are just tiny fragments of pleasure and luxury in the world, and there is something unpatriotic about enjoying them. 
Books this book reminded me of
The Lord of the Flies - when boys are a whole world unto themselves

Doctor Zhivago - in particular, the scene when the boys go dig the railroad out from under the snow

The Catcher in the Rye - there was a really familiar Salinger-esque sense to this novel, which made me like it immediately, but which also made me concerned it was not going to end happily.

All Quiet on the Western Front - the idea of the impact of a war on a generation. In All Quiet, the war is WWI, and his fighting defines his life.
The war has ruined us for everything. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.
I loved that Phineas loved winter, as it is one of my favorite seasons. My favorite seasons are, in order, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. What are your favorites, dear readers? I loved this line from Phineas:
The winter loves me, he retorted, and then, disliking the whimsical sound of that, added, 'I mean as much as you can say a season can love. What I mean is, I love winter, and when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love. 
Words, Wonderful Words
inveigle - persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery

effulgence - brightness taken to the extreme; one may be dazzled by it, stunned by it, or even overcome by it. Usually used to refer to the sun or some other mega-star, effulgence can also be used more figuratively.

decalogue - the Ten Commandments

Lines I loved
  • Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
  • This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demolition the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way. isn't this a fabulous line? I love the part about 'in this double demolition...' 
  • Happiness had disappeared along with rubber, silk, and many other staples, to be replaced by the wartime synthetic, high morale, for the duration. 
  • We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction.
  • The closer victory came the faster we were shuttled around America in pursuit of a role to play in a drama which suddenly, underpopulated from the first, now had too many actors.
Well, dear blobbists, I wish you the very happiest of holidays and a lovely new year, if I don't blob again before then. Squeeze your dear ones, listen to the brag of your heart, and remember we much cherish peace anywhere and everywhere that we find it and we make it. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.

1 comment:

  1. yes, effulgence, from the Latin "fulgor" - lightning, or splendor. Nicely summarized, a pleasure to read your blog, as usual.