This week’s post is about friendship, as I’ve returned home from uni and had a great time catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a while. When I was thinking of title quotes for this theme, the phrase that immediately sprang to mind was too long. However, it’s lovely, so here it is:
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)
If that doesn’t make you go “aww..” you are a cold, cold person.
Firstly, Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, my copy Penguin 2001 trans. Carol Brown Janeway). Embers is a deceptively simple novel, set over one evening, running to only 250 pages in my edition. An elderly general lives in a castle, in melancholy stasis:
“The castle was a closed world…it also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses”
He prepares for a supper with his childhood friend, Konrad, who he hasn’t seen in 41 years. Over the course of the evening, the betrayal that tore them apart will be voiced and answers sought. Within this simple framework Marai explores the complexity of human relationships, with great delicacy:
“Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all emotions that will last a lifetime”
“Their friendship, fragile and complex in the way of all significant relationships between people”
With a lesser writer the novel would be heavy-handed, clichéd, sentimental. But Marai avoids these pitfalls by refusing to make things – feelings, events, motivations – simple or captured in reductive explanations.
“The magical time of childhood was over, and two grown men stood there in their place, enmeshed in a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word ‘friendship’”
I can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers, but Embers is a beautifully written, intelligent book about the complications of the loves we have in our lives. Marai never wastes a single word. I highly recommend it.
Secondly, Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (4th Estate, 2005). Danny is living in London, doing a job he hates to pay for a flat he’s ambivalent about. He has physically moved away from Northern Ireland, but his childhood follows him in the form of his oldest friend:
“Geordie Wilson was standing on the step. His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky. He looked charred, a little cinder of a man […] He could have been Death’s apprentice.”
Geordie’s in trouble, and seeks refuge with Danny. Their lives easily become as intertwined as when they were kids, despite the years apart, and as they infuriate each other they never really consider leaving the other one to cope alone. The notion of loyalty as a choice, and yet one that is rarely questioned, is given a further resonance by the fact that Danny and Geordie grew up through the Troubles. Now both have left Belfast, but Utterly Monkey queries how much we ever leave our childhoods behind, and how feelings can remain inexplicable but powerful motivators for the action we take.
It’s a touching story, and I actually felt the over-arching plot was unnecessary, the carefully drawn characters would be enough to carry the story along. However, this isn’t to suggest the plot is clumsy, and Laird uses his considerable skill as a poet to write effective prose, finding surprising and evocative images in the everyday:
“Outside the pub a tattered newspaper was lying against the kerb and the wind was freeing it sheet by sheet. Some pages blew about restlessly further up the pavement. One had managed to wrap itself around a lamppost and was flapping gently like a drunkard trying to hail a taxi.”
Laird is also funny (“He was an East Londoner, and appeared to suffer from the East London disorder of considering accidental eye contact an act of overt aggression.”) and this stops a tale that could be full of bitterness and regret from ever becoming recriminatory. In fact, it makes it more realistic – there are friends who drive you mad, who make you wonder why the friendship continues, but the ties that bind somehow endure and stop life becoming too predictable.
To end, the trailer for one of my favourite films, The Station Agent (2003), which charts the beginnings of friendship between 3 people. Peter Dinklage is now uber-famous as Tyrion Lannister, but here he is many years before, giving a very different, equally wonderful performance: