Twenty-five years ago, novelist John Knowles made literary history with a quiet, moving story about a group of boys in a New Hampshire prep school coming of age during World War II. Published when he was 33, "A Separate Peace" won Knowles the William Faulkner Foundation Award, was called by Time magazine one of the best 10 novels of the 1960s, and went on to sell 9 million copies. It was his first novel. Asked one reviewer hopefully of Knowles: "Is he the successor to Salinger for whom we have been waiting for so long?"
Looking at John Knowles' latest and ninth novel, "The Private Life of Axie Reed" (E. P. Dutton: $15.95), one could wonder who the reviewer is talking about.
Set in Hollywood, the affluent Long Island community of Southampton and a fictional Greek island called Paxos, "The Private Life of Axie Reed" is a slick Hollywood-esque tale about a 50-year-old actress suddenly confronting her own mortality.
And not just any actress, mind you, but a "fascinating, complex, glamorous celebrity," a "personality star on the order of Katharine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall."
Knowles offered this giddy appraisal of his heroine during a recent interview one afternoon in his room at the Century Wilshire. A short, portly man of 59, who has lived in Southampton for 20 years, Knowles was in town for a week plugging his new novel, a job he approached with little false modesty. "I think it's a terrific book," he said.
But critics haven't exactly been gushing over Knowles' work in recent years. Although "A Separate Peace" continues to sell 500,000 copies a year, his other books have had only modest success.
"I'm not exactly the favorite person of the New York literary scene," he noted dryly.
"We'd better not get into that," he said. "We'd just better not get into that. I mean, I've had a very mixed press. My books are not obvious best sellers, are they? They're serious literature. And when you write literature, you have to get a very good press."
Moreover, the publishing industry is a " terrible business," Knowles said. "It's a very old-fashioned, badly organized, under financed business." And most publishers, he contends, are looking for Jackie Collins.
But don't get the wrong impression. Knowles, an urbane, sophisticated man whose self-confidence borders on awe-inspiring, is hardly bitter. And why should he be? After all, "A Separate Peace" has been supporting him for 25 years. "Isn't that incredible?" he asked. "And what touches me most, what pleases me most, is that people who are far removed from the world of prep schools love it."
First Female Character
So now there is "The Private Life of Axie Reed," a novel detailing about 50 years in the life of a renowned star of stage and screen. In what must be a classic piece of understatement, Knowles said he decided to concentrate on a female character for the first time because he wanted to try something "quite different."
In his opinion, most of the great American male novelists who have written about women have created characters that are little more than simplistic stereotypes. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, "never wrote a successful woman character," and Scott Fitzgerald "wrote repeatedly about his wife." Thus for Knowles, "it was a challenge to see if I could really bring a talented celebrity woman to life convincingly or not." He added, unprompted, "And I like to think I have succeeded."
After all, Knowles' female friends who read the novel told him they were fascinated by Axie Reed. "Have you seen this quote by Gloria Vanderbilt?" he asked, showing a glowing review. "And she's a very perceptive woman, and sort of similar, a career woman from a moneyed background who's had a full life."
As for why he chose to write about an actress, Knowles said he has always been "fascinated by the world of movies and theater and I've been around them as a friend of people, sort of in the scene but not really participating. But I thought I knew a lot about the theater and the movies, and I wanted to use this setting for a different kind of novel.
"Also, everything I've ever written has been very firmly rooted in place. When it came to this novel, I chose eastern Long Island. That is her (Axie Reed) family's summer home and has been throughout the 20th Century. She is in part a product of eastern Long Island, a very special land of farms, beautiful beaches and fishing. Then she marries into this very rich Greek-American family, and their roots are on an island in Greece. I also know that world very well."
In the mid '60s, Knowles was in the Middle East doing a profile of King Hussein of Jordan when "lo and behold, I was invited to spend a month on a yacht sailing through the Greek Islands. Then, two summers later I spent another month sailing through the Greek Islands. And the special quality of the Greek people struck me tremendously, so I knew that sooner or later I would want to draw on that in a book."
Cast of Characters