In 1929, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called Chains in which he suggested that people are six (or even fewer) social connections away from each other. While I’ve never been quite convinced by this six degrees of separation theory, I have always been curious about the gaps between individuals, and how they open and close. For example, if a friend’s friend gets some bad news, you might be worried for your friend, and fleetingly though genuinely sympathetic for the suffering their friend is going through, but your attention moves on almost immediately. Putting any empathy for mass human suffering aside for a moment, we’re not programmed as individuals to carry the full weight of innumerable strangers within us.
So my first question when I picked up Comrades: A Lifetime of Friendships was: why should I care about the details of Rosita Boland’s relationships with people who are strangers to me? Yet, as this fascinating and warm-hearted essay collection demonstrates, Boland has clearly not only considered this question herself, but answers it with honesty, care and wisdom. As a result, what could have been a sequence of ‘so-then-we…’ vignettes becomes a moving meditation on friendship and the deep-seated need to find and retain human connections.
Boland is a poet as well as a journalist, and her talents for both unite here. She brings a reporter’s eye for detail and context, and a poet’s feel for metaphor and meaning in her search to use words “that will go deep as wells”, as she phrased it in her previous essay collection, Elsewhere.
Unlike Elsewhere, a book about exploring the world by documenting nine journeys from nine moments in her life, she wrote Comrades during lockdown, able to travel only in her imagination by touring her past, present and future via the people who have mattered to her most. The importance of friendship at a time when she was living alone and feeling isolated resonates through the book — something many readers are sure to understand only too well.
One of the book’s great charms is her honesty. “In the beginning, I had no friends”, she states, before going on to describe how her longing for a pet and a pal came to life (so to speak) in one imaginary dog and two imaginary playmates. Not long afterwards, she learned how to read and books became her default armour against loneliness. “The day that I experienced the catalyst moment of suddenly understanding how to read, that process of actual transformative magic, when the mysterious small black things on the page suddenly shifted into focus and made sense, and became words, sentences, stories, is one I recall with piercing clarity,” she writes. “In retrospect, the day I learned to read was easily the happiest and most joyous of my entire childhood.”
For anyone who had a similarly fervent dedication to reading as a child (my own hand firmly up here), the two essays Imaginary Friends and Book Friends are bound to resonate. Book Friends is a series of short essays-within-an-essay on books that have had a significant impact on her, including the Guinness Book of Records 1967 and Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.
Each chapter focuses on a different person or type of friendship. Boland casts her net wide, including travelling companions (“the ultimate souvenir from travelling elsewhere in the world is a friend”), former partners, school pals and colleagues. She includes the disappearance of journalist Dorothy Parvaz in Syria, and friends who got left behind, lost amid a change of circumstances. Her description of an unrequited love at university is scrupulously fair in its depiction of past and present. Reflecting on the ill-fated relationship, she realises it was not the catastrophic waste of time she feared, but instead a meaningful, if short-lived, connection.
At 14, looking for advice about how to become a writer, she wrote to Kaye Webb, editor of the famous Puffin Club, established by Penguin Books to encourage children to read. Webb replied. Seven years later, when Boland was working in London for the summer, she wrote again. Webb replied again, inviting her to visit. Not only did this herald the start of a significant friendship, but Boland had the joy of getting to use the Puffin Club secret password on the very person who created it.
Boland writes “my friends make my world” and the use of make rather than ‘are’ is both telling and sensitive: friendships can contribute and create the life around us; ‘having’ friends is not enough. It is the act of making, of allowing them to change and grow that solidifies such relationships. I wonder what her friends think, for like fingerprints, everyone’s friendships are different.
Yet what Comrades so engagingly shows is our shared need to connect with one another.
Memoir: Comrades: A Lifetime of Friendships by Rosita Boland
Doubleday, 272 pages, hardcover, €21; e-book £9.99