Spring has been falling all week in a mystic drizzle. All I can say is: huzzah. What a hard Midwestern winter it’s been. We hunkered down in our house—myself, my wife, our four-year-old daughter and infant son, an ailing spaniel that can hardly walk—and read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web over and over. And over. And over. In fact, this winter I read Charlotte’s Web dozens of times. I read it to my daughter every night before bed and then again over breakfast and sometimes lunch. If that seems like obsessive behavior to you, then (a) you’re right, and (b) you probably aren’t the parent of a young child.
Not that I’m complaining. I would rather read Charlotte’s Web for the thousandth time than “make a milkshake” by putting imaginary ingredients in an invisible blender while my daughter goes to the potty, or pretend she is a cow that has to be milked and then let out to pasture, or be instructed to “talk about the egg” she has become by curling up into a ball on the floor. (There is a kitten in the egg. Its tail and whiskers are rainbows.) At least Charlotte’s Web is not mindless, no matter how many times we read it.
My wife, who is Jewish—and who refuses to read the book anymore—jokingly referred to our cyclical reading of Charlotte’s Web as “Simchat Torah,” a reference to the Jewish holiday that accompanies the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Each week at every synagogue in the world a section of the Torah is read aloud. Every synagogue reads the same 54 sections in the same order. In the last week, the book is finished—and immediately begun again. Simchat Torah celebrates that cycle and the way the Torah gives structure and meaning to people’s lives. So, it was with Charlotte’s Web. As soon as I read the last paragraph and closed the book, always with great ceremony, my daughter would insist that we go back to the beginning. In this and other ways reading Charlotte’s Web became a ritual. We were marking something. One phase of childhood was ending, another just beginning.
My daughter is four and, believe it or not, everything is starting to change. She’s learning to read. She spends more time looking in the mirror, making faces, taking her glasses off and putting them on and taking them off again to see which look she prefers. Her afternoons are filling up with lessons—swimming, ice skating, soon ballet and gymnastics—instead of the free play she’s used to. Kindergarten starts next year. Play dates loom.
At the heart of Charlotte’s Web are two subjects about which my four year old is intensely curious: friendship and death. Charlotte (the spider) and Wilbur (the pig) are each other’s first and best friends. They ease each other’s loneliness, on rainy days, especially. They play. Charlotte tells Wilbur stories and sings to him. By writing the words “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble” in her web, Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life, convincing Homer Zuckerman that Wilbur is extraordinary, a miracle, and so should not be slaughtered for smoked bacon and ham.
As for what Wilbur does for Charlotte, well, that’s a little harder to parse. Wilbur himself asks about it near the end of Charlotte’s life. “‘Why did you do all this for me?,’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘‘You have been my friend.’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” It is, isn’t it? They lift up each other’s lives—that’s how Charlotte puts it. Friendship teaches them that they are capable of love. Will my daughter find such a friend in her kindergarten class? Until this winter, her only real friend was her doll, New Baby, but the times they are a changin’. Last week I watched her skate around the ice rink with a girl whose helmet she admired. (It had a unicorn horn.) She was smiling the whole time.
Death is Charlotte’s Web’s other great subject and, as I said, a topic of some fascination for my daughter. The cemetery we pass on our way home from school never fails to bring up new questions, which range from the logistical (Does the body go up and down or side-to-side?) to the existential (Does life get sillier and sillier and then we die?) to the just plain weird (Do we all die in the same hole?). My answers (side-to-side, no, no…but also yes?) never satisfy either of us. I don’t know what’s behind her questions, whether fear, anxiety, simple curiosity. Is she grasping after her own finitude? Maybe. Is the world made strange when she sees those headstones from the road? Not sure. I guess we both have our questions. We both want to understand something that is essentially unknowable.
My daughter wept the first couple times we read about Charlotte’s death, which happens in the last paragraph of the next-to-last chapter. So did my wife. (Whenever my wife cries during reading, which happens not infrequently, my daughter insists on tasting her tears.) Since those initial traumas, my daughter hasn’t let us get close to that paragraph, requesting that we skip it many chapters in advance. In Charlotte’s Web death is wrenching. White ends that last paragraph: “No one was with her when she died.” It’s inevitable. Not just inevitable, though: necessary. Death, weirdly, gives the world shape and meaning.
There is a discernible order to things in Charlotte’s Web. Three times a day, the hired man Lurvy walks down to the barn with food for Wilbur. Goslings hatch every spring. In early summer the birds come out and start singing (“everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs”). In early fall, spiders lay their egg sacs full of baby spiders—514 of them for Charlotte—and then die. In late fall, the squashes and pumpkins are brought into the barn to protect them from frost. Time exists and brings change, but change makes the world beautiful.
The book takes place over the course of a year, shaped by the seasons of both nature and human life. Fern, the eight-year-old girl whose native sense of justice saves Wilbur from an untimely death—and from whose perspective we witness all the goings-on among the animals—grows up by the end of the book, drawn finally away from the simple world of the barn by a boy her age named Henry Fussy. In the first chapter Fern is nursing Wilbur with a bottle. In the last she’s absent. White treats this change with characteristic equanimity and humor. “She was growing up,” White writes, “and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.”
My daughter is not there yet—she would happily sit on a milk stool near a pigpen—but she is growing up. The world is coming into focus, big with possibility, vertiginous and changeable. Reading Charlotte’s Web on repeat was a comfort in the face of these changes, for both of us. It was a way to process the loss of what was, the anticipation of what will be. Sitting together at the end of the day, me propped against the side of her bed, her under the covers, the two of us making a T, we said goodbye to our own time in the barn (that kitten, those rainbows), even as we looked ahead to what’s next.
“Who wants to live forever?” Templeton (the rat) asks in the last chapter. He’s right, but I hate how carelessly he says it. Charlotte is gone. Fern has moved on. Fall passes. Winter comes, then spring, bringing frogs and sparrows, new friendships and adventures. Our baby has started on solids. Our spaniel struggles to get his hind legs up our two front steps after a walk. Suddenly, the neighborhood is teeming with robins, which my daughter attempts to befriend, and a fox even trotted up to our door this morning. The world is unfolding its hands again, full of gifts. It will lead her a little farther away from me, as it does every year. We’ve moved onto Stuart Little, but I still steal glances at Charlotte’s Web, the sublime last chapter in particular. If you have time this spring, I suggest you do the same. E.B. White perfectly captures the mixed emotions of the season: “The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.”
It’s there in the early books we read—the ideal of friendship, its glimmer.
“But his favourite person of all was Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper because she had four names just as he did,” writes Mem Fox in Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. “He called her Miss Nancy and told her all his secrets.”
“But that night they dreamed about each other, the way true friends do,” assures Helme Heine in Friends.
“You have been my friend,” a fading spider tells a mourning pig in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. “That is itself a tremendous thing.”
Red and Fred in P.D. Eastman’s Big Dog…Little Dog. Mary and Colin and Dickon in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The Walrus and the Carpenter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Mary and Celestine in Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen. We grow into our friendships as we grow into our books—the ideals crack, what is lost can be more powerful than what is gained, and what is gained is never absolute. This is friendship that we’re speaking of: gesture, theater, refracting lens, perhaps only temporary reprieve, provocatively more complicated as the years unfold.
The Venn and fray of adult friendship are the propulsive stuff of recent novels by Sally Rooney, Rebecca Makkai, Sigrid Nunez, and Jessica Francis Kane. The books arrive at an anxious time, when social media “likes” appear to absolve us of the need to actually engage, GoFundMe campaigns stand in for hugs or cheers, and political maneuvers aim their ammunition toward the shatter of communities. We align, but do we step in? We care, but do we call? We know that true friends should fall to sleep dreaming of each other, but instead we groom our solitary nightmares. In all of this, the questions remain: What is a friend? What do friends do? What does one friend owe to another, and is friendship love a separate kind of love or something else altogether?
Is friendship a word without borders?
Should there be borders?
In Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, college students Frances and Bobbi were lovers before the story begins, but when we meet them, they’re “just friends”—two girls becoming increasingly entangled with an older married couple. It’s a dangerous business, a lark with consequences, and as one betrayal follows another, the “just friends” business grows increasingly strained and strange.
We read the novel to find out what the girls expect from one another and what secrets might be ethically protected. We read because Rooney is forcing us to decide whether, within the fluid realm of contemporary friendship, any semblance of propriety must be preserved. When a relationship becomes self-consciously ironic and blurred, is that friendship or is it love and does that matter?
Marianne saw us holding hands in college one day and said: You’re back together! We shrugged. It was a relationship, and also not a relationship. Each of our gestures felt spontaneous, and if from the outside we resembled a couple, that was an interesting coincidence for us. We developed a joke about it, which was meaningless to everyone including ourselves. What is a friend? We would say humorously. What is a conversation?
Rooney is an outstanding chronicler of the fluidity of friendship in a “with benefits” world. It’s a modern arrangement that may well trigger old-fashioned devastation. “Well she’s not my girlfriend as such,” Frances says. “We’re sleeping together but I think that’s a way of testing the limits of best friendship.”
For Makkai in The Great Believers, the death of Fiona’s gay brother in mid-1980s Chicago creates an inheritance—a community of friends—that will succor and haunt her for the rest of her life. The bonds run deep. So does the heartbreak. Fiona’s friendship with gay men like Yale Tishman, for example, snaps her relationship with her husband and ultimately estranges her from her daughter. If friendship is Fiona’s talent, it is a freighted one, burdened by the temptations of possession.
Friendship, a benevolent word, is rife, for Makkai, with repercussions. It is also, as we learn from Yale himself, a concept steeped in melancholy. Yale has no lover toward the story’s end, but perhaps he is not lonely. Perhaps he has learned—not too late, but almost—that friendship, at its core, is elemental. Writes Makkai: “And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone’s life. Making room for someone in yours.”
This thin line between love and friendship plays out brilliantly in Sigrid Nunez’s slender and affecting The Friend. The narrator is a writer and teacher of writing who speaks, throughout the book, to her dear friend, now dead of a suicide. These two were lovers but once. They were friends for nearly lifetime. The narrator won’t stop speaking to her lost friend, won’t stop imagining him with her, won’t stop remembering who he was and conjecturing whom he might have become. The narrator even agrees to her lost friend’s wish that she adopt his harlequin Great Dane, a majestically mourning beast who threatens to consume the narrator’s 500-square-foot apartment.
Is mourning for a friend the same as mourning for a lover? Does it matter? Will the dead friend always be more real than those who are still alive, still offering the narrator a chance to engage in a living conversation? “The dead dwell in the conditional tense of the unreal,” Nunez writes. “But there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they’ll say even before I write them.”
And that dead friend’s dog? It is, Nunez writes, “like having a part of you here.” But ultimately, Nunez suggests, surviving the loss of a friend is not much different from surviving the loss of a lover; it may even be, given the permutations of the condition, harder. “The dog has to forget you,” the narrator says, though she might as well be speaking of herself. “He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.”
In Jessica Francis Kane’s forthcoming novel, Rules for Visiting, May Attaway lives a seemingly uncomplicated life with her elderly father in the house where she grew up. She’s a university gardener with pleasant-enough interactions, but when she reads about a young woman’s death and the deeply affecting mourning that emerges in its wake, she recognizes the vacancy that has crept into her life.
“You could be good at being a friend, and no sooner had I had the thought than I knew I was not,” writes Kane. “I had some friends, but did I have a community? No. Would a group of us someday rent a beach house together and have a weekend of frivolous yet somehow poignant fun? Never. Most of my friends do not know one another, and even if they did, I’m certain they would not consider me the center of anything.”
An unexpected gift of time sends Attaway on a journey to discover something about her capacity for friendship, which is to say her capacity for all that friendship demands of us: spontaneity, tolerance, humor, truth, the willingness to be our unguarded selves, and the strength (which is desire) to carry each other forward. Kane is a quietly humorous writer, a thoughtful purveyor of friendless tropes and quotes, social media fallacies, awkward inner thoughts. Her careful narrator is carefully concealing the reason friendship has been elusive in her life.
Love and friendship are indivisible, Eudora Welty wrote in her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship: “The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.” Still, the math is hard to figure—the calculations and permutations of friendship spill forward, always, in story. The new friendship novels challenge us to be the friends we could still be. The new friendship novels offer truth in consequences.
Image credit: Unsplash/Korney Violin.
It has been a year of reading in fits and starts, indeed of doing everything in fits and starts, fits and starts being the general run of things when you have a baby.
For articles I was writing, I happily revisited passages from several books, including:
For my next novel, I read bits of books about fathers, including letters between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart; books about Italians, including Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation; and books about conspiracy theories and “the power of the lie,” including David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and a timely new anthology entitled Orwell on Truth.
I read books that were sent to me, including Free Woman by Lara Feigel and the forthcoming Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman. In preparation for events, I read Kevin Powers’s A Shout in the Ruins, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Each made me grateful for the forces that delivered it over my transom.
In London I read Sally Rooney’s absorbing Conversations with Friends while my daughter patiently paged through an old copy of The Cricket Caricatures of John Ireland.
On a flight from San Francisco to Boston I read Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and wished it were twice as long.
On Thanksgiving I read Updike: Novels 1959-1965, including the biographical chronology at the end, marveling at a prolificacy I think only Simenon outmatched.
I read The New York Times, most avidly the obituaries, which are like little novels.
I read The New Yorker. I also listened to The New Yorker, and to Jeremy Black’s A Brief History of Italy, and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, because of course listening is a way of reading when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied.
I read books about motherhood, including the Sebaldian Sight, by Jessie Greengrass; And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell; and too many books about how to get your baby to sleep, none of which helped except for the one that asked me to consider what kind of memories of my daughter’s infancy I would like to have.
I re-read Strunk & White.
I read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, which Philip Roth sent me 40 days before he died.
And, with my daughter in my lap, I read many more books, most of them multiple times, including Il flauto magico, One White Rabbit, The Range Eternal, Where’s Mr. Lion?, Giochiamo a nascondino!, Pinocchio, Biancaneve, Good Night, Red Sox, and an especially treasured box set illustrated by the late artist Leo Lionni: Due topolini curiosi, whose cover features a duly curious little mouse with her whiskers buried in a book.
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