A Separate Peace: an excerpt

“Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person ‘the world today’ or ‘life’ or ‘reality,’ he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

“For me, this moment—four years is a moment in history—was the war.  The war was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere.  These are some of its characteristics: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the President of the United States, and he always has been.  The other two eternal world leaders are Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin.  America is not, never has been, and never will be what the songs and poems call it, a land of plenty.  Nylon, meat, gasoline, and steel are rare.  There are too many jobs and not enough workers.  Money is very easy to earn but rather hard to spend, because there isn’t very much to buy.  Trains are always late and always crowded with ‘servicemen.’The war will always be fought very far from America and it will never end.  Nothing in America stands still for very long, including the people, who are always either leaving or on leave.  People in America cry often.  Sixteen is the key and crucial and natural age for a human being 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.  When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you.  This is a puzzle, finally solved by the realization that they foresee your military future, fighting for them.  You do not foresee it.  To waste anything in America is immoral.  String and tinfoil are treasures.  Newspapers are always crowded with strange maps and names of towns, and every few months the earth seems to lurch from its path when you see something in the newspapers, such as the time Mussolini, who had almost seemed one of the eternal leaders, is photographed hanging upside down on a meathook.  Everyone listens to news broadcasts five or six times every day.  All pleasurable things, all travel and sports and entertainment and good food and fine clothes, are in the very shortest supply, always were and always will be.  There are just tiny fragments of pleasure and luxury in the world, and there is something unpatriotic about enjoying them.  All foreign lands are inaccessible except to servicemen; they are vague, distant, sealed off as though behind a curtain of plastic. The prevailing color of life in America is a dull, dark green called olive drab.  That color is always respectable and always important.  Most other colors risk being unpatriotic.”

It bears repeating

For a long time I thought that I would never re-read books. My refusal was part badge of honor and part common sense. After all, there are bazillions of books in the world, the vast majority of which I will never even know exist, let alone find the time to read, so why waste precious hours on novels I’ve already absorbed?

Then I got older, and books I had in my youth sworn allegiance to as lifetime favorites became little more than dull memories, or overarching sentiments (“yeah…I remember…liking it?”) It was with this in mind that I began slowly and occasionally picking up old favorites, particularly those I thought might seem different to me now that I’m old and wise and at least vaguely understand politics. I’ve read 1984 at least three times, Fahrenheit 451 two and, more recently had a second go at Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I was inspired to read again after all the (completely justified) hype surrounding Freedom.

A Separate Peace, the 1959 novel by John Knowles, seemed like the perfect candidate for a re-read. It’s one of those books most people know they’ve read, but from which most readers are separated by at least a decade, having been assigned the book in high school or even earlier. I am one of those people: I have vague memories of A Separate Peace from my formative middle-school years, when a novel about two prep school best friends probably resonated with me the same way the Babysitters Club did (I didn’t really babysit, but understood what it was like to spend a lot of time thinking about boys.) But other than some general recollections, I couldn’t tell you before this week what exactly A Separate Peace was about.

Continue reading “It bears repeating”