The use of the qualifier “just” for good friends has always felt inadequate to me. Several of my friendships have been marked and defined by an important characteristic labelled by Carolyn Winifred Oulton (in her book Romantic Friendship in Victorian Literature) as “intense feeling”.
These were platonic friendships that involved many of the tropes of romance: yearning, letter-writing, playlist creation, fear of the loss of self or an embrace of the opposite: a kind of self-expansion into the possibility of the friendship. Crucially, they contained a naked form of need, something that was linked to the potential for joy, but could also go awry.
In my novel You People, 19-year-old Nia develops a friendship with Tuli, proprietor of the restaurant where she works. At the start, she cannot categorise the relationship with him – they are not involved physically, but at times it feels intimate, mesmeric, familial. There is the acute certainty that it is important.
Sex may be an absent presence in a platonic friendship of course. In fiction, it may be clear to the reader, even if it is not to the characters themselves, that eros is being masked or suppressed for any number of reasons. In life, that same libidinous impulse might roar or be sublimated at any time during the friendship.
But for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to go with this linking idea of “intense feeling” in fictional friendships where there is no carnal activity and call it platonic.
1. Sula by Toni Morrison
Long before the fever and dream of Lila and Lenu 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 dancing all over societal notions of class, race and marriage. Set in a black community in the Ohio hills between 1919 and 1965, where white gentrification is encroaching fast, the book circles around the bond between the pair as they become women. Hurt each other they do and must, but the power they exhibit together comes from their difference and the paradigm-altering questions they bring to the table. The ending, calamitous yet liberating, is a masterful study of regret.
2. A Painful Case by James Joyce
Mr Duffy thinks he is cultivating the kind of nutritious companionship that is like “garden soil” around his roots, but when his platonic buddy Mrs Sinico pauses their regular conversations about Truth and Beauty to suddenly press his hand against her cheek, Duffy is sent spiralling into an existential hell. He cuts off all contact, aghast. Years later he reads in the paper that Mrs Sinico has been hit by a train, and that she began drinking in the years after their friendship ended. Duffy’s reaction is not pleasant – first he experiences a kind of revulsion at her tawdry ending, later he ruminates over how he has been excluded from “life’s feast” – could it be that he has wasted his life by being so puritanical?
3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
This relationship between a tree and a boy is beautifully straightforward until it isn’t – the boy grows up swinging joyously from the tree’s branches, but starts to take liberties. He carves his sweetheart’s initials in the bark, takes the apples away, he even cuts off her branches, citing the need for money. Through it all, even when he finally chops the tree down to a stump with an almost psychotic lack of care, the tree constantly claims to be happy. The mystery: should we all be channelling the tree’s zen sensibility or does it lead to ruin?
4. A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor’s depiction of film director Beddoes, who corresponds with artist Frances after admiring her paintings, is suffused with emotional intelligence. Ultimately, the face-to-face relationship Beddoes cultivates with Frances cannot compete with his obsessive love of the still images she creates. This is a relief for Frances, who is more interested in deepening and darkening her artistic practice than dealing with his fanboy bluster. But Beddoes is a useful provocation, and he makes her stop and consider her past, present and future.
5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Dickens has a traditional will-they-or-won’t-they romance going in this book, which surfaces at intervals during Pip’s journey from blacksmith’s apprentice to high society. But he is also concerned with the way in which aspiration can rot one’s soul, seen in the complicated friendship between Pip and Joe. Pip looks up to Joe when he is little, but once he starts his ascent, he sees Joe and feels only the rank shame of his own humble origins. Joe is sanguine about this unseemly part of Pip, because he understands him so well: “You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends.”
6. The World According to Garp by John Irving
Pro footballer Robert becomes Roberta with a sex reassignment operation after reading A Sexual Suspect, the cult feminist text written by Garp’s mother Jenny. She’s an earlyish trans character, and easily the most appealing character in the novel, someone who suffers “the vanity of a middle-aged man and the anxieties of a middle-aged woman … a perspective that is not without its advantages”. Roberta and Garp play squash regularly and a solid friendship ensues. In a book that has a lot to say about the vicissitudes of lust, their platonic intimacy is a delight.
7. Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
This novel, glinting with what the writer James Salter called “perfect knowledge and close 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 criss-cross of ambition and deception that ladders between them over decades, there is another, chiasmic, almost-platonic “happy companionship”. Read it to marvel at the rich delineation of personality and meaning.
8. The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
Alice and Jasper have been moving from one squat to another 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 can seem cruel, but Alice is also a little relieved that nothing can flower between them, specifically, that no child can come out of their bond. This is a novel of ideas, and Lessing’s excoriating intelligence is the motor, as she takes us down the intersecting avenues of the personal and political.
9. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Dina is a widow who has a college student lodger called Maneck, and two tailors – Ishvar and Omprakash – living with her in Mumbai during the state of emergency in 1975. They form a makeshift family together. The dysfunction of the external world bruises and harms all four of them – we witness forced sterilisation, castration, limbs are amputated, lives and homes are lost – but the relationship is a vessel that holds them through the worst of times.
10. Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
Twenty-year-old Tully Dawson, factory machinist and raconteur, is a dizzying, cinematic best mate for the ages. Jimmy, from the same council estate in Ayrshire, wants to be around him as much as possible. It’s 1986. They share quotes from the film A Taste of Honey and lyrics from Joy Division, and head to Manchester for a weekend of euphoric gigs. We see Tully and Jimmy 30 years later when one of them receives bad news. But they’ll always have Manchester. This is O’Hagan’s most autobiographical novel, and he says of the real-life friendship that inspired it: “I still dream of it, that Manchester – the orange buses and the long clear light of the afternoon, knowing there would be more drink, more laughter, with the future held at bay.”
You People by Nikita Lalwani is published in paperback by Penguin on 8 July. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.