Friendship in Fiction

Posted on 26th November 2015 by Michael Callanan
Elena Ferrante's A Brilliant Friend is currently shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year Award. A perfect time then to have a look at camaraderie in literature - by bookseller Michael Callanan.
Two of this year’s biggest books, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, centre on friendship. But both authors approach the topic in very different ways. 

In Yanagihara's A Little Life, Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude discover each other during their college years, and support each other as they all go on to have distinguished careers. A third of the way into the novel, Jude literally replaces his estranged biological family, when he is adopted - in adulthood - by his mentor and friend. Arguably, the most interesting idea the book raises is the replacement of a family with a friendship group.

In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, by contrast, the main characters, Lila and Elena, become friends as young children. In A Little Life, JB, Willem, Malcolm and Jude attempt to knowingly craft their friendship, whereas in A Brilliant Friend, Elena and Lila forge theirs with a little less self-awareness.

“We saw each other in the courtyard more and more frequently. We showed off our dolls to each other but without appearing to, one in the other’s vicinity, as if each of us were alone.”
― Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

It is telling that this friendship begins organically, out of silence; it is a friendship in which they understand one another without explanation. However, in A Little Life, when it becomes clear that Jude is hiding something painful, his friends pry. They try to understand, but cannot.

The group dynamic allows not just for a great selection of characters but for the coming together of different types of characters. The novel becomes the juncture where several lives intersect; all coming from, and going to, different places, but for a time converging.

I was pleased when Virago reissued Mary McCarthy’s The Group in 2009 as I had wanted to read it for some time. It certainly did not disappoint. Set in 1930s New York, but written in the early 1960s, the book brings all the sexual frankness of the feminist movement to a group of eight female graduates. It set the scene for all novels about female friendship groups going forward, and is said to have influenced Sex in the City and Girls

The women in The Group had the freedom to become what they wanted. With friends, it suggests, you can be who you think you really are – or rather you can tell the stories that invent you as the person you want to be. This is exactly what happens to Julie Jacobson in Meg Wolitzer’s captivating The Interestings. Julie is invented by her friends, when Ash Wolf casually calls her Jules rather than Julie. Suddenly, this 'Jules' came into being. And with that, she was in the group: an outsider finding her community.

“They were all just countless cells that had joined together to make this group in particular – this group that Julie Jacobson, who had no currency whatsoever, suddenly decided she loved. That she was in love with, and would stay in love with for the rest of her life.”
― The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

As savvy readers, we can guess that something will come along and spoil literary, platonic love, not just because fiction needs drama but because of the nature of friendship itself. While friendship has strength at its core, it constantly shifts on the surface -  through exasperation, exclusivity, distance, co-dependence, and power changes. This is something that all the novels mentioned pin down perfectly. Friendships are like no other relationship. They have a dark side, an unexplainable side. It should be incomprehensible to have a relationship where you can be simultaneously jealous and also genuinely happy for someone else’s achievements. Excluding the Neapolitan Novels, because they already begin with two friends, each of these books winnows down the friendship group, leaving us with truer friendships because, in the end, people (and characters in well written books) change.

“But clearly life took people and shook them around until finally they were unrecognizable even to those that had once known them well. Still, there was power in once having known someone.”
― The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

When fiction settles on two friends, it can explore that darker, more intense side of friendship, in the way that Elena Ferrante's novels do so well.

One of the best novels in the English language, A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, is the perfect example of this intensity. Following in the tradition of The Great Gatsby, it comprises the objectification of a friend by the narrator. Ok, so it’s a bit on the dirty side but you have to expect that from Salter and he is a master of writing about sex. When he describes the intimate relationship between his friend, Phillip Dean, a Yale drop-out, and Parisian Anne-Marie Costallot, the unnamed narrator makes Nick Carraway seem gormless by comparison. It gradually dawns on the reader that the narrator cannot possibly have witnessed the graphically described sex; the only remaining possibility? That it is pure fantasy swirling around the narrator’s mind.

Ultimately, friendship is the perfect subject for fiction because friendship could be summarised as: feeling for someone who isn’t you. The repercussions that a character can feel in their life from a friend’s tragedy is a perfect metaphor for the reader who responds emotionally to something that happens to a character on the page.

I’ll finish with my favourite moment in fiction, which happens because of a friendship gone dark. I cannot spoil it for anyone, but I can say that it happens in the middle of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. And it cracks the novel in two. All I can say is, if you are a fan of fiction, you must read it.


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