Mark Twain once claimed, “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
And sometimes, a good book alone can fulfill our need for both of the former, offering us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in heart-warming, and sometimes heartbreaking, friendships. While they might not be our own friendships, literature can offer us an intimate view of the friendships of others.
Essentially, The Book Thief is a story of friendships. Firstly, it is the relationship between Leisel and Rudy, two children who play on streets as the influence of the Nazis sweeps across their city, is one of the most poignant aspects of the novel. Amid the affectionate teasing and name-calling, the two build a strong bond and are rarely apart during the daylight hours. Their friendship brings a sense of humanity to the inhumanity they increasingly witness around them.
In the same book, the unexpected relationship between Leisel and Max, a Jewish man hiding in the basement of her house, is another point of light in a sad story. Their friendship is such that Max ultimately becomes like family to Leisel. Their relationship, built on shared nightmares, storytelling and art, ultimately offers Leisel hope for the future during times of darkness.
Perhaps it is the very unexpectedness of the friendship, between an outcast and a young girl with her own sadness, in an increasingly hostile world, which makes it so powerful.
Another friendship in which its unexpectedness makes it all the more potent is that between the concierge and a young resident of a French apartment building in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The two friends are outsiders in their contrasting worlds, standing apart from others, one as a poor and apparently uneducated worker with a seemingly incongruent interest in books, art and learning, and the other, for her sense of being an outsider in her own family.
Despite vastly different life stages, social standings and experiences, the two come together with a shared sense of being ignored, misunderstood and lonely in their own worlds.
Often, it is the fact that stories of friendship in fiction have tragic outcomes that they are so memorable. In The Book Thief, the narrator reveals from the outset that there will be tragedy. In Jane Eyre, there also seems a sense of inevitability in the sad outcome of Jane’s first real friendship, with fellow boarding school student Helen. In Jane’s life, a friend has taken so long to find that her imminent death is devastating. As the two lie together on Helen’s deathbed, the sadness and sense of loss is overwhelming.
Like many fictional characters, the friendship between the two comes as sucour to them both, as they live in the shadow of a cruel housemaster. For a while, their relationship is idyllic, offering them both the hope and affection which they have been missing.
However, it is the friendship between Kitty and the drunken British soldier named Waddington in The Painted Veil, that offers a lifeline to Kitty, whose husband lures her into a cholera-stricken outpost in China. Away from her family and the society she knows, and with a cold and remote husband, she finds peace in the friendship that emerges with Waddington during their walks.
Friendships in literature, while often warm, joyful and affectionate, are not without their complexities. In My Brilliant Friend, the relationship between Lena and Lila is strained by jealousy and competition, with an undercurrent of affection. Even from their childhood, when Lila inexplicably threw Lena’s doll down a drain, the friendship has been tumultuous. Yet, the two continue to gravitate towards each other, despite their differences.
And who could forget the friendship between Barbara and Sheba in Notes on a Scandal. It is a friendship that is confusing, complex and ultimately, toxic, as the older woman brings about the downfall of the friend who she loves and needs, yet resents. While in the background, a relationship between a teacher and a student is a prominent plotline, it is really the friendship between Barbara and Sheba that is at the heart of this novel.
Sometimes, the greatest and most complex friendships are between siblings. In Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, stepsiblings are thrown together to navigate their childhoods. Theirs are friendships of convenience, after they spend summers finding ways to entertain themselves, which eventually grow to become much more. Behind the Scenes at the Museum follows sisters as they navigate love and war, while the siblings in Brideshead Revisited have a relationship at times close, and at other times strained and distant.
In books, it is fascinating to become immersed in friendships outside our own. So, all that is left for an ideal life is a sleepy conscience. I think that might be something I can manage, with the help of a good book.