Monday, October 13, 2014

A Separate Peace & Snow

Two classics and both surprising

     One of my colleagues decided to teach John Knowles’ A Separate Peace this summer and I thought I’d read it as well.  Even though copies lay on various high school and college shelves, I’d never been assigned it and I sort of avoided it.  I developed a prejudice towards it for no good reason, i.e. I hadn’t read it.

     I always thought it was a prep school book and I thought, so what?  (It’s the same reason that I wasn’t as thrilled about Harry Potter as many others were.  It seemed like Enid Blyton filtered through Roald Dahl, though very well written, and a little reactionary since Hermione was the smartest character, but Harry always competed and won).  A Separate Peace, like The Go-Between, actually re-examines the past and how those who
came of age in a specific era were either undone by or thrived.  In this case, the era is the early ‘40s.  It undercuts the idealized popular notion of  ‘The Greatest Generation’ by showing a variety of responses to the abstract and then actual threats of a world war.  

     It’s a subtle work that lends itself to multiple interpretations.  My colleague approached it from the standpoint that Gene and Finn were doppelgangers of one another.  In coming to terms with one another, one survives by destroying the other.  I saw it as the future wiping away the past in order to establish a new order.  It ‘s elegant, understated, and quietly fascinating.

     I’ve wanted to read Snow by Orhan Pamuk ever since it was released a decade ago in the U.S.  It was written at the turn of the century (the dates are listed at the back and the only book that worked for was Ulysses), but I had to check out Wikipedia to figure when it was taking place and I still couldn’t locate it.  Maybe it was some time in the early or mid-‘90s.  The last military coup was 1997, but that seemed late.  

     I wanted to find out more about Turkey and Snow sort of did that.  The main national conflict seems to be whether the country should be a democracy or a theocracy and the role Islam should play in its culture.  Is the U.S. really that different?  Substitute Christianity for Islam in the preceding statement and I’d argue that is the root of the “culture wars” of the past half century here.  Pamuk sets the story in Kars, an outlying city, during a weekend where all hell breaks out politically centering on exiled poet Ka, returning after many years.  He investigates the young women who wish to remain wearing their headscarves even though it has been outlawed and are prepared to commit suicide to do so.

     However, Ka is far more interested in making it with his former friend’s divorced wife.  He goes on and on about it for pages and pages.  It’s no coincidence that John Updike thought this “a major work” and “(Turkey’s) most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize” in The New Yorker since most of his major male characters were most interested in whether they’d make it with some hot female.  I prefer Updike’s style to Pamuk’s, though this was translated.   After Ka finally gets it on with Ipek, there’s a flash forward and we find out he’s dead.  (Sex = Death?)  Then we flash back (ugh!) to figure out why he was killed four years later.  I wouldn’t and didn’t give up, but I kept asking myself why?  Oh yes, and Pamuk did win the Nobel Prize, even though I’d rather read Updike.

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