TThe use of the adjective “fair” for good friends has always struck me as inadequate. Many of my friendships have been marked and defined by an important characteristic that Carolyn Winifred Oulton (in her book Romantic Friendship in Victorian Literature) describes as “intense feeling.”
These were platonic friendships that involved many tropes of romance: desire, letter writing, making playlists, fear of loss of self, or an embrace to the contrary: a kind of self. -expansion in the possibility of friendship. Basically, they contained a naked form of need, something that had to do with the potential for joy, but could also go wrong.
In my novel You People, Nia, 19, befriends Tuli, owner of the restaurant where she works. At first, she cannot categorize the relationship with him – they are not physically involved, but sometimes it seems intimate, hypnotic, familial. There is the acute certainty that this is important.
Sex can be an absent presence in a platonic friendship of course. In fiction, it may be clear to the reader, even if not to the characters themselves, that Eros is obscured or suppressed for a number of reasons. In life, that same libidinous drive can roar or be sublimated at any point in the course of friendship.
But for the sake of this piece, I’m going to go with this idea of “feeling intense” bonding in fictitious friendships where there is no carnal activity and call it platonic.
1. Sula by Toni Morrison
Long before Lila and Lenu’s fever and dream in Elena Ferrante’s epic Neapolitan novel series, and the haunting “imaginative empathy” of female friendship in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, we had Sula and Nel busy dance on societal notions of class, race and marriage. Set in a black community in the Ohio Hills between 1919 and 1965, where white gentrification quickly encroaches, the book revolves around the bond between the two men as they become women. They hurt each other and have to do it, but the power they manifest together comes from their difference and the paradigm-shifting issues they raise. The end, calamitous but liberating, is a masterful study of regret.
2. A Painful Case of James Joyce
Mr Duffy believes he cultivates the kind of nutritious company that looks like ‘garden soil’ around his roots, but when his platonic girlfriend, Ms Sinico, interrupts their regular conversations about truth and beauty to suddenly press his hand against his cheek, Duffy is spiraled into an existential hell. He cuts off all contact, appalled. Years later, he reads in the newspaper that Ms. Sinico was hit by a train and started drinking in the years after their friendship ended. Duffy’s reaction is not pleasant – first he experiences a sort of revulsion at his disgusting ending, then he ruminates on how he was left out of the “feast of life” – could it be that he wasted his life by being so puritanical?
3. The tree that gives by Shel Silverstein
This relationship between a tree and a boy is beautifully simple until it isn’t – the boy grows happily swinging from the branches of the tree, but begins to take liberties. He engraves the initials of his beloved in the bark, removes apples, he even cuts off its branches, invoking the need for money. Through it all, even when he finally cuts the tree into a stump with an almost psychotic carelessness, the tree constantly claims to be happy. The mystery: Should we all channel the tree’s Zen sensitivity or does this lead to its ruin?
4. A crown of roses by Elizabeth Taylor
Director Beddoes’ portrayal of Taylor, who corresponds with artist Frances after admiring her paintings, is imbued with emotional intelligence. Ultimately, the one-on-one relationship Beddoes cultivates with Frances cannot compete with her obsessive love of the still images she creates. It’s a relief for Frances, who is more interested in deepening and darkening her artistic practice than dealing with her fanboy bluster. But Beddoes is a useful provocation, and it makes her stop and consider her past, present and future.
5. The great expectations of Charles Dickens
Dickens has a traditional love story in this book, which recurs at regular intervals during Pip’s journey from apprentice blacksmith to high society. But he’s also worried about how the aspiration can rot the soul, as evidenced by the complicated friendship between Pip and Joe. Pip admires Joe when he was little, but once he begins his ascent he sees Joe and only feels the shame of his own humble origins. Joe is optimistic about this unseemly part of Pip, because he understands it so well: “You and I aren’t two characters to be together in London; nor anywhere else than what is private, known and understood among friends.
6. The World According to Garp by John Irving
Professional footballer Robert becomes Roberta with gender reassignment surgery after reading A Sexual Suspect, the cult feminist text written by Garp’s mother, Jenny. He’s a precocious trans character, and by far the most attractive character in the novel, someone who suffers “from the vanity of a middle-aged man and the anxieties of a middle-aged woman … a perspective which is not without advantages ”. Roberta and Garp play squash regularly and a strong friendship ensues. In a book that says a lot about the vicissitudes of lust, their platonic intimacy is a delight.
7. Late in the day by Tessa Hadley
This novel, shining with what writer James Salter called “perfect knowledge and keen observation,” contains several configurations of platonic friendship. Alex and Zach have known each other since school, as have Christine and Lydia (their wives). In the intersection of ambition and deception that separates them over the decades, there is another chiasmic, almost platonic “happy company”. Read it to marvel at the rich delineation of personality and meaning.
8. Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist
Alice and Jasper have been moving from squat to squat for 15 years and are now involved in protests against “Queen Bitch Thatcher”. Alice claims to love Jasper in the conventional sense, although she knows he prefers men. His rejection of her may seem cruel, but Alice is also a little relieved that nothing can blossom between them, precisely, that no child can come out of their bond. This is a novel of ideas, and Lessing’s exhilarating intelligence is the driving force, as she takes us on the crossroads of the personal and the political.
9. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Dina is a widow who has a student tenant named Maneck, and two tailors – Ishvar and Omprakash – who live with her in Mumbai during the state of emergency in 1975. Together they form a makeshift family. The dysfunction of the outside world bruises and injures all four of them – we are seeing forced sterilization, castration, limbs amputated, lives and homes lost – but the relationship is a vessel that keeps them in the worst. moments.
10. The Ephemera of Andrew O’Hagan
Tully Dawson, 20, factory machinist and storyteller, is a dizzying, cinematic best friend for the ages. Jimmy, from the same estate in Ayrshire, wants to be around him as much as possible. It’s 1986. They share quotes from the movie A Taste of Honey and lyrics from Joy Division, and head to Manchester for a weekend of euphoric concerts. We see Tully and Jimmy 30 years later when one of them receives bad news. But they will still have Manchester. It’s O’Hagan’s most autobiographical novel, and he says of the real friendship that inspired it: “I still dream of it, that Manchester – the orange buses and the long, clear light of the aftermath. – midday, knowing that there would be more drink, more laughter, with the future held in check.