Near the end of the “Manet/Degas” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a small drawing by Edgar Degas of a bearish man with a beard. At first glance, you might think the man in the drawing is Edouard Manet, but in fact he’s an author and critic named Edmond Duranty. Nine years before this drawing was created, Duranty wrote something critical of Manet, in response to which Manet, encountering Duranty in a cafe, slapped him. Duranty demanded that Manet apologize. Manet refused. Duranty challenged Manet to a duel. The duel, by sword, took place three days later. Manet was unscathed; I guess you could say he won. Duranty, the man in the Degas drawing, “received a wound in his upper chest,” as the museum text accompanying the drawing states matter-of-factly. I stared incredulously at the text’s last line: “Surprisingly, the two men remained friends after the incident.”

By the time I really noticed the Duranty drawing, I was on my sixth or seventh visit to “Manet/Degas,” which is closing today. I’d been dipping in and out of it ever since it opened in late September, arriving at odd hours and loitering with intent. The show for me offered a fascinating narrative of a friendship, and in every gallery there lay coded clues and submerged hints about the intense feelings that the two painters had for, and about, each other. The fact that Degas had done a drawing of a man whom Manet wounded in the chest made me feel that Manet was part of the story Degas was telling. It’s a story both amazing and faintly familiar to anyone who’s read Greek tragedy, the Bible or Shakespeare, or watched the evening news. As grandiose as it sounds, it also felt familiar from my own experience.

I recognized in the story the excitement of adjacency that comes with certain friendships that border on rivalry — when you have a friend who inspires feelings in you, some admiring, others confusing or even unpleasant, even hateful, and all of them as intense as love. It’s a love that can turn readily to rage but can also be rocket fuel to keep you going creatively, out of both a need for your friend’s approval and a fear that, with his accomplishments, that friend will leave you behind. Rivalry and affection become so intertwined as to become indistinguishable. When you add ambition to the mix, it creates a complexity that ultimately can make these friendships deeper and more valuable, the most treasured friendships of all, especially after they are lost.

Early in the Met exhibit, you encounter a pair of engravings, accompanied by text that details the meet-cute story of Degas and Manet’s relationship. They met at the Louvre, while gazing at a Velázquez. Degas was drawing directly onto the waxy surface of a copper plate without having first made a preparatory drawing, a style Manet found unorthodox. Manet approached him and paid him a compliment for his audacity.

Contemplating this moment in which a heartfelt compliment was the spark of a complicated friendship, I thought of my friend, the writer Robert Bingham, who died of a heroin overdose in 1999. At a gallery show in New York in the early 1990s, Rob, then a stranger, came up to me and told me he’d read a short story of mine and liked it very much. The story was about a young man whose father died young. I would later discover that Rob was a guy whose father died young, as had mine, though this affinity was something we never actually acknowledged in words. Rob later got involved in a literary magazine I’d started and we had various adventures at home and abroad; he got married and then he died. Now it all seems to have taken place in the blink of an eye, though the exact span, gallery to funeral, was about seven years. In the spring of 2000, we both published novels, his posthumous.

We had a strange dynamic with our writing: outwardly supportive but not involved in the particulars. We talked about literature all the time but we didn’t read each other’s work or offer notes. We were each a source of anxiety for the other, but also of confidence, in equal if fluctuating measures. To say we were competitive is surely true, but it would miss something more interesting: Rob and I wholeheartedly wanted the best for each other, while also feeling stressed out by the prospect of being exceeded by the other.

Vivid in my memory is an answering-machine message he once left that starts with the exultant but gently delivered news that he had placed a story at a magazine of note, where I had also published, suggesting we get together to celebrate. Then, as though he had run out of things to say but didn’t want to put the phone down, he concluded with what almost felt at the time like a taunt: “How about that, Jack?”

Rob’s death was so abrupt that I still remain stunned: the swearing off drugs, the drunken relapse, the overdose, the discovered body, and suddenly, the groomsmen at his wedding reassembling six months later to be ushers at his funeral. These days, my friendships with other writers are more cordial, even delicate, as though we have seen enough people burst into flames and then go up in smoke that we appreciate the fragility of the other person’s presence. I have never been able to write properly about my friend Rob or that time in my life. Instead, I smuggle mentions of him into various pieces of writing, as I am doing here, as though I can only see him in memory through eclipse glasses.

It might be this dynamic, above all, that prompted my visceral response and repeat visits to “Manet/Degas.” The mysteries of the artists’ friendship were most conspicuous in a gallery devoted to two paintings, side by side, one by Manet and one by Degas. They are variations on a theme: In each, a woman is seen in profile playing the piano.

The woman is Manet’s wife, Suzanne, and the living room is in Manet’s home and, in Degas’s painting, Manet himself is lounging on a sofa behind her, his mood ambiguous. The most conspicuous difference between the paintings is that the one made by Degas is missing a third of its canvas, the victim of a violent, if very precise, excision — by Manet, it turns out. He had sliced out the portion of the canvas in which Degas had painted his wife’s face. But why? Did something happen that made Manet furious, a pictorial equivalent of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock and saying, “Keep my wife’s name out of your mouth”? These unanswered questions about the slashed Degas are complicated by the other painting, in which Manet depicted the same scene, with the same woman, at the same piano, this time with her face visible. What is missing from Manet’s version of the scene is Manet.

“He was greater than we thought,” Degas said in the aftermath of Manet’s premature death. In that line, I recognized the shock and confused self-reproach of the stunned, surviving friend. The survivor is in the position of making inside jokes to a room in which he is the only occupant.

I thought of this when looking at another image exhibited not too far from the sketch of Duranty. It’s a small photograph of Degas taken late in his life. Photography was brand-new and Degas was now old. The tiny black-and-white picture needed to be squinted at, and I brought my nose right next to it, rudely boxing out everyone else.

Once close enough, you can see Degas sitting in his studio. On the wall behind him is the painting of Suzanne at the piano that Manet had slashed. It’s a mischievous, moody, in some ways depressing souvenir that nevertheless feels like a touching act of love and a totem of longing. Suzanne’s face is gone but Manet himself is there, in that tiny photo at the dawn of the 20th century, serving the double purpose of evoking that long-ago salon and Manet’s rage and passion in the excision of his friend’s painting.

There is speculation that Degas had planned on restoring the painting. Both that wish and the fact that he never acted on it seem true to life, and to death — a longing for resurrection yet settling for the pulse of life that comes from the longing itself. Degas had become a custodian of his friend’s work and a de facto custodian of their friendship. In some ways, this seemed the most profound echo of my own experience, or that of anyone who has had the experience of having loved someone he then outlived.

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