John Knowles Essay - Knowles, John (Vol. 4)

Knowles, John (Vol. 4)

Knowles, John 1926–

Knowles is an American novelist and short story writer. His particular achievement has been his sympathetic examination of the problems of young adults in the Fifties and Sixties. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

For an excellent case of mechanical neatness and righteousness, consider John Knowles's little sermon Indian Summer. Like everything Knowles has written, despite his protestations, the book is a carefully constructed little machine…. Only twice in Indian Summer does Knowles fall into writing like a novelist. He has a splendid scene in Kansas, in which Kinsolving takes up a crop-duster biplane and behaves gloriously like himself—doing stupid things, nearly killing himself, and smashing all the countryside; clumsily realizing it's stupid and dangerous but delighting in it anyway, making comically sober but ridiculous observations to himself which Knowles, in the ecstasy of honest inspiration, allows to stand. The other fine moment in the novel is one in which Kinsolving first meets his brother Charley after four years.

John Gardner, in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 127-29.

I lost myself in A Separate Peace. I identified with Phineas, and I indulged fantasies that would have made even Leper Lepellier stand up and take notice. The book became my bible, a chronicle of the lost tribes of preppies who underwent the torments of youth in search for the promised self. Now, as a college student, I have read John Knowles's new novel, The Paragon, and experienced that same ecstasy of identification and understanding that I derived from A Separate Peace. For once again Knowles has created a realistic and sensitive portrayal of the confusing and sometimes terrifying predicaments of youth.

S. Alexander Haverstick, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1971, p. 31.

John Knowles' first published novel, A Separate Peace, now a decade old, is a minor but very nearly perfect piece of work: a tight, cohesive account of the corruption of innocence that is not merely the finest "prep-school novel" but a genuine work of art. Such early success, however, has its all-too-familiar pitfalls. Since A Separate Peace Mr. Knowles has been foundering—writing with characteristic grace and intelligence, but groping uncertainly for new subjects and themes.

The uneasy process continues in The Paragon. As it happens, I like the novel very much, finding it engaging amusing and thoughtful. But for all its considerable charm, The Paragon doesn't quite come off. It is too derivative of A Separate Peace, echoing it in setting, dramatis personae, mood and theme. It is also inherently false in tone, for it is a sixties novel in a fifties setting, with resultant credibility problems that greatly weaken it….

A Separate Peace may be a miniature, but it is a wholly realized work of art in which a world is created and made believable. The Paragon attempts to re-evoke that world but ultimately lapses into imitation.

Jonathan Yardley, "A Novelist Groping," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 13, 1971, pp. 27-8.

John Knowles, though belonging to an older generation, speaks in [The Paragon] for the young, or at least for the offspring of middle- and upper-income Americans. Far more effectively and lucidly than Charles Reich in The Greening of America, he describes their rebellion and their disillusionment with their parents, the corporate state, the lily-white suburbs, the ecological mess, and the country's military madness. He understands their doubts. He catches their enthusiasm. He sympathizes with their hunger for genuine love and the opportunity for self-expression. Nor is he an academic hippie offering vague protest and a world of inaction held together by a kind of abstract affection. His heroes, both in his latest novel, The Paragon, and the earlier A Separate Peace, are hopeful activists, eager to contribute to a new society in their own way….

Knowles's style is gentle and unaffected, yet direct and firm. There is an acerbic tone to his treatment of Yale, an ironic bitterness which catches this same mood in his characters. He has shifted skillfully from depicting the naïveté of his prep-school characters in A Separate Peace to dealing with the newly acquired cynicism of college sophomores…. Perhaps he is rather in the tradition of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh with its strong anti-parent bias and its sympathy for children and young adults, though Knowles's literary technique and the world he elects to write about are far removed from Butler's. In any case The Paragon is an admirable novel. It deserves to have the same reputation—and will probably show the same power to last—as A Separate Peace, the book that made its author's reputation.

Peter Rowley, "Power to the Partial People," in The Nation, May 3, 1971, pp. 569-70.

"Where'd you get the butler?… Out of some murder novel?" John Knowles has a character ask midway through Spreading Fires, as if to warn that the fictional possibilities inherent in the first half of this new book … will not be realized in the second half, but will dissipate in pulp tale tackiness….

That these characters have been invested with so little inner life that they appear to be pulp fiction puppets is disappointing since Knowles, notably in A Separate Peace, has revealed an understanding of emotion and a sensitivity to the psychological struggles between love and enmity, between loyalty and freedom, between the need to accept guilt and the need to be absolved from it. He still knows about emotion…. But statements about feeling don't show what characters feel as they interact with one another. Had Knowles developed the relationships for which the foundation is laid in the first half of the novel … [he] might have sparked the emotional conflagration suggested by the title. Undeveloped, the characters are wet kindling. Instead of Gotterdammerung we get Alfred Hitchcock in the second half….

The symbols and imagery of Spreading Fires are more imaginative than the characterization, but tend to be contrived; rather than emerging from the narrative they are tacked onto it. References to Catholic liturgy do emerge from the Lucases' religious heritage, but accompany no genuine crisis of faith or identity….

Despite flaws which make Spreading Fires a failure in terms of serious fiction, the novel has some attractions. The style is brisk, the Mediterranean setting is beautifully rendered, the plot is fastpaced and entertaining. And there is some subtle word play….

Why a novelist of Knowles's talent would want to write even superb potboilers is beyond me, and I hope his next novel is more ambitious.

Wayne J. Henkel, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 23, 1974, p. 2.

As a novelist, John Knowles has long been fascinated with the treachery that lurks in the heart of man. In A Separate Peace, his now classic account of a teenage friendship, Knowles explored hauntingly our inner urge to destroy. In Spreading Fires, he probes still further, this time into the viscera of a deranged soul, finding guilt and madness there in contagious proportions….

The tale is told in a clean, unobtrusive language that belies the insidious nature of Knowles's argument. But Knowles simply fails to convince us, with his social morality and his contrived implications, that evil and sexual longings lurk inexorably in his characters' souls. His novel is less an argument for the infectiousness of paranoia, suspicion, madness, than it is for the deep-running fear of being displaced, for the human hunger to belong, to be part of a family, that sent Neville [the "cheerless, reclusive British-Canadian" protagonist] askew.

Susan Heath, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 29, 1974, p. 18.

Although it was hideously overpraised for the doubtful virtue of being full of restraint—a rare virtue in an age when novels have their pretensions sticking out a mile, but hardly something to make a reader keel over with admiration—John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" remains a novel in miniature, very clear but not very ambitious. It was the work of a literary apprentice who showed himself to have greater range in subsequent novels, "Morning in Antibes" and "Indian Summer." My own favorite is "Morning in Antibes" (a choice [that "Spreading Fires"], with the same setting, does nothing to alter). It is a strange mixture of a foundering marriage and the central character's friendship with an Algerian refugee, saying little about the marriage but telling volumes about the way sympathy of a political and personal kind is generated. In that book, the Riviera was a hothouse of steamy air and unexpected blossoms. In "Spreading Fires" Mr. Knowles's Riviera is again exotic, but here it's hard to keep from thinking that it's really only expensive, and that if you had enough money you could go to pieces there, too….

It is possible to believe in [the novel's] ménage, and Mr. Knowles's portrayal of Americans being driven to distraction by [their] cracked, domineering servant has just the right touch of malice; but the novel is too slight a thing, too hastily worked out…. Attempting to be allusive, Mr. Knowles is sketchy.

Paul Theroux, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 14, 1974, pp. 4-5.