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Obituaries

John Knowles, 75; Wrote 'A Separate Peace'

December 01, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Peace" turns on the complex friendship of two boys, Gene and Phineas, or Phinny, both students at a private school called Devon. Gene is academically gifted, while Phinny's power is on the playing field. The story is told through the eyes of Gene, whose insecurities and resentment of his friend's popularity lead to a tragic incident in which Phinny is badly injured falling out of a tree. Gene is later accused of causing Phinny's fall, which ends his athletic career. Phinny later injures himself again and dies on the operating table.

The passage in which Phinny is first injured is "a rich part of the novel. It's exquisite," said Charles Terry, who taught "Peace" in his courses at Exeter for 30 years. His students always debated whether Gene deliberated caused Phinny's crippling fall, as they have in many other classrooms.

Knowles himself refused to answer the question, preferring the ambiguity. "Was it deliberate or not? It is one of the great ambiguous stories," Vidal said. "One of the reasons Jack was taken very seriously in Europe was this was pure Sartre."

'Peace' Manuscripts Given to Alma Mater

The novel's enduring appeal also stems from its layered richness. It is a tale of innocence and evil, and an exploration of opposing selves. Knowles returned to these themes in his later works, but critics by and large judged those efforts far less positively.

"Peace," he said in a 1986 interview, was in many ways "an albatross. Everything is compared unfavorably to it afterward."

In 1978, he went back to Exeter for a week to address students and alumni and review his handwritten manuscripts of "Peace," which he donated to his alma mater.

"He was feeling despondent over the fact that all his books after 'Separate Peace' never achieved the same acclaim," said Exeter librarian Jacquelyn Thomas.

One day, Knowles took her and John Heyl, the former Exeter student who played Phineas in the movie, to the woods to find the tree that he and his friends jumped off many years before. Straying far past the river, they could not find it. On the way back, he exclaimed, "There's the tree!" How they could be so sure no one knew, but Knowles at last was satisfied.

Finding the tree, he said in a letter to Thomas later, was "a particularly moving moment. "The hold the school has on me," he said, "is inextinguishable."

Knowles is survived by a brother, James of San Francisco; and two sisters, Dorothy Maxwell of Arizona and Marjorie Johnson of Texas.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Excerpt From 'A Separate Peace'

In this excerpt from John Knowles' "A Separate Peace," Gene and Phinny are studying for a French exam and getting little done when Phinny announces that a member of their gang will be initiated that night. The initiation involves jumping from a high tree branch into the river.

Gene, the studious one, balks at going to the river, suspecting that Phinny is trying to sabotage his grades. But Phinny is only operating from a belief that academics come as naturally to Gene as athletics do to him. "I didn't think you ever [studied]. I just thought it came to you," he says innocently. Learning this, Gene's resentment seems to dissolve; he abandons the books and goes with his friend, a decision that leads to tragedy.

We followed our gigantic shadows across the campus, and Phineas began talking in wild French, to give me a little extra practice. I said nothing, my mind exploring the new dimensions of isolations around me. Any fear I had ever had of the tree was nothing beside this. It wasn't my neck, but my understanding which was menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.

I couldn't stand this. We reached the others loitering around the base of the tree, and Phineas began exuberantly to throw off his clothes, delighted by the fading glow of the day, the challenge of the tree, the competitive tension of all of us. He lived and flourished in such moments. "Let's go, you and me," he called. A new idea struck him. "We'll go together, a double jump! Neat, eh?"

None of this mattered now; I would have listlessly agreed to anything. He started up the wooden rungs and I began climbing behind, up to the limb high over the bank. Phineas ventured a little way along it, holding a thin nearby branch for support. "Come out a little way," he said, "and then we'll jump side by side." The countryside was striking from here, a deep green sweep of playing fields and bordering shrubbery, with the school stadium white and miniature-looking across the river. From behind us the last long rays of light played across the campus, accenting every slight undulation of the land, emphasizing the separateness of each bush.

Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Phinny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.

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