A winter’s tale

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in winter. Photograph by Benjamin Hollis.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in winter. Photograph by Benjamin Hollis.

I’ve always hated winter, but for a long time I made my peace with it by rereading the middle section of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace,” a novel that was in a sense the inspiration for my forthcoming novel, “Water Music.” Indeed, Knowles’ novel has had such an effect on me that although I haven’t reread it in years, I think of it often when I pass the local high school athletic fields but especially in winter when the fields are blanketed by snow.

“A Separate Peace” is very much a story about the games men play, or rather, the games boys play, in this case a group of Devon School (i.e. Phillips Exeter Academy) students, at loose ends during the summer of 1942. The story is bracketed by that summer and the one that follows. But its heart is the winter in-between, a winter that will both insulate the boys from the war that is taking a terrible toll around the world and isolate the rivalries and jealousies that are at the heart of all wars.

Phineas – Finny to his friends – is the charismatic athlete around whom the story and the boys’ extracurricular life revolve. Gene is the introverted, intellectual best friend who admires Finny’s intangibles – until he feels that they are striking at the heart of his own identity. When that happens, Gene does something so terrible that it threatens not only their friendship but Finny’s very life, creating a new vulnerability in a season in which all is laid bare. Still, Finny goes on loving amid its spareness.

“I love winter,” he says, “and when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it can.”

“A Separate Peace” tests the extent to which that is true. I don’t think I’m giving anything away – either of Knowles’ haunting novel, which many have read in high school, or of my own work – when I say that those who love the most, who lay themselves bare, are the ones most likely to succumb to winter’s chill.