We begin this month with What are you Going Through? (2020) by Sigrid Nunez and with thanks as usual to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest who does all the organising for this monthly feature. The background can be found here.
Reading the blurb is enough to confirm that this is not a book for me right now. Not even the cat on the cover will tempt me. But for this month’s chain I’m going to take one of the themes from the book and run with it. So, a chain exploring friendship. Which seems fitting since Nunez also wrote The Friend. I am much more likely to read that one!
Perhaps in my eagerness to leave Nunez’s book behind, I jumped instantly onto my first link. Nothing clever here, it’s an obvious choice for the theme of friendship: My Brilliant Friend (2011) by the enigmatic Elena Ferrante. For anyone who doesn’t know (is there anyone?) My Brilliant Friend recounts the friendship of Elena and Lila, growing up in poverty in 1950s Naples. I haven’t read this book. Heaven knows why; it really should – and does – appeal, but … time, I suppose. Too many books, too little time. And my understanding is that when I finish the first in the quartet I will be compelled to rush immediately onto the next. So it’s not just making time for one book but potentially four. * sigh * Hopefully, one day I’ll begin.
There’s a lot of speculation over whether My Brilliant Friend is autobiographical but the female friendship in the next link is definitely between two real women, scandalous in their time. Vita & Virginia (2018) by Sarah Gristwood is by all accounts a very beautiful book, filled with illustrations. It charts the lives of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, through their mutual love affair, their various other affairs, their houses, gardens, writing and other passions and their enduring friendship. This is also one I haven’t read but I’ll be reading it as soon as our marvellous library system delivers it to my local branch which should be later this week.
I’m well into the theme of friendship now and acknowledging to myself that not all friendships are pure and unsullied. I tried to ignore this next one, given that the book has had plenty of exposure on the blogosphere lately, but really, how can I not add Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) to a chain exploring friendship? For Becky Sharp, friendship is a tool, a rung on the ladder of advancement and she exploits the friendship of poor little Amelia Sedley without mercy.
I still can’t bring myself to defend Becky but her name does provide a link into the next book. I feel certain that I’ve read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996), written by Rebecca Wells but in reminding myself of the storyline, I’m left wondering. If I have read it, it has left no trace. Regardless, it’s in as the fourth link, the story of a mother-daughter relationship with a heavy side order of 1950s female friendship. From the blurb: a poignant, funny, outrageous, and wise novel about a lifetime friendship between four Southern women. I’ll take that form of friendship over the Becky Sharp variety any time.
I feel that a dose of male bonding is needed next. If I think of ‘book’ and ‘male friendship’, I immediately see Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. There is of course, much more than male friendship explored in Waugh’s classic and eventually the friendship is strained beyond repair. But in the end I have gone with L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), a classic that I loved. An example surely, of a purer, more innocent friendship than that between Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead. But was it? Was Leo not using his fledgling friendship with Marcus and the invitation to spend time with his much grander family as a means of bolstering his own status? And indirectly, it led to tragedy. Perhaps all friendships have an underlying self-serving purpose? Maybe Becky Sharp was simply more honest in her blatant use of Amelia as a stepping-stone to loftier things.
Is that really what friendship is all about? Of course not. I’m sure none of us here would exploit a friendship for our own ends. Likewise, Jane Austen’s Emma, (1815) would never use her friends to improve her own social standing. Instead, she ‘helps’ them to improve their own positions and ‘protects’ them from making choices which will not serve them in bettering themselves. But in so doing, she also keeps them within her permitted circle of socially acceptable friends. Can that have been part of her thinking all the time? I fear it may have been. I was not a fan of Emma when I read the book. This may be another nail in her coffin for me.
I’d prefer to end this chain with an example of the perfect literary friendship. I’m sure there are many out there. But sadly, the next book which came to mind illustrates the opposite. (It also, as I realised when I came to add the book covers, forms a seventh link. Oops. Maybe no one will notice.)
Like What are You Going Through?, Cat’s Eye (1988) by Margaret Atwood incorporates many themes, but friendship leapt off the page for me at the time that I read it, and toxic friendship at that. Looking back as an adult, now a recognised artist, Elaine remembers her childhood friendship with Cordelia in which Cordelia bullied and taunted her until Elaine found the strength to turn away. I recognised much of what Atwood wrote from my own childhood and I didn’t enjoy having a mirror held to those experiences.
Cat’s Eye just might be responsible for my antipathy to Margaret Atwood’s work. Certainly, it was the first of hers that I read and it didn’t get us off to a good start.
I’ve surprised myself here by creating a chain marked by cynicism when I set out to do the opposite. Friendship, I thought, was a “nice” idea to theme the chain on, a warm and fluffy chain was happily anticipated. But such is the nature of Six Degrees, who knows where each chain will lead?
Nonetheless, I do want to end on a positive note. I consider myself deeply fortunate to have such treasured friends and with true friends in mind, I’ll add some literary thoughts on friendship, two from altogether more innocent classics and a third to remind myself that Austen’s perceptions are still relevant today.
“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”L M Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet.― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
‘Even longer,’ Pooh answered.”
…there was not a creature in the world to whom she spoke with such unreserve … not any one, to whom she related with such conviction of being listened to and understood, of being always interesting and always intelligibleJane Austen, Emma (referring to Emma’s friend, Mrs Watson)
Next month we begin with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. This is one I’ve been intending to read for a while. Maybe I can squeeze it in before the end of the month. And in the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions for books which present a realistic but truly positive expression of friendship, I’d be happy to hear them!