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Ali Smith, How To Be Both – TLS


If you look at any bestseller list today, you’re liable to find a How To… title. No longer just technical guidance books, these now proliferate in the fields of economics (John Lanchester, How To Speak Money), politics (Roger Scruton, How To Be a Conservative), feminism (Caitlin Moran, How To Build a Girl) and even literature (John Sutherland, How To Be Well Read) – all published in 2014 and aimed at audiences wanting to acquire know-how quickly.  Ali Smith’s new novel, How To Be Both, is an odd addition to this collection, being anything but a quick fix: it’s a slow work in two parts that like oil and vinegar needs time to marinate in the mind. But it does attempt to do what its title suggests. In a career always concerned with writerly self-scrutiny, How To Be Both, is, to date, Smith’s most thorough exploration of the art of fiction, concerned particularly with the novel’s resilient dialectic: its capacity to inhabit opposites and create conversation between them. What others describe as the novel’s dialogism, Smith, in her informal style, calls its “friendliness”. Her breezy manner and bantering asides (“just saying”) might trick a reader into mistaking this for a lightweight work, but lightness turns out to be one side of many paradoxes examined here. Its twin is an intellectual seriousness that shows Smith has designs on her readers as profound in its implications as those held by Laurence Sterne or Italo Calvino.

Smith makes her approach through a story about art and artists that allows her – as in her earlier work, Girl Meets Boy (2007) – to reflect upon stories and writers. She gives us two artists: one long dead, the other so recently that the smell of her is still on her clothes, and while they are both dead they are also both alive, equipped with what Smith once called a book’s “present tense ability”. One is Francesco, a ghost now but previously an Italian Renaissance painter who, coming from so long ago and far away, has to struggle to break through, emerging in a stream of words, “twisting”, “falling upwards”, till she lands somehow (“ouch”, “ow”, “mercy”) in an art gallery in contemporary England. In front of her is the kind of perspectival mystery that she enjoys: the back of a boy’s head as he stands before a painting (“I like a good back”). Trying to collect herself, to work out who she has been and what she now is, Francesco feels uncontrollably drawn to the boy – George – and follows him home. He is too busy with his own life to notice, being haunted in a more prosaic way by the recent death of his mother, a modern-day renaissance figure who worked as a writer and Guerilla Girl-type artist inserting politics into art websites and art into political ones. Like the image of the painter looking at the boy looking at the painting, much of How To Be Both proceeds by mise-en-abyme: it is a great carry-on of characters, ideas and actions. George is not only haunted, but himself following a woman who, in turn, once tracked his mother.

As often transpires in Smith’s coiling fictions, even these various things are not all they seem: the boy George is otherwise known as Georgia, a handsome, androgynous girl; and Francesco is not only a ghost, but a woman whose life was spent masquerading as a man, the only way in the fifteenth century she could be apprenticed into the world of art. George, too, is an apprentice of sorts: having learned by her mother’s practise of questioning (“Does it matter?”). Now pursuing her mother’s stalker, George wonders what matters about her. Was her mother under surveillance by a government spy, as she claimed? Or was this paranoia, as her father thought? Perhaps the woman was an ardent fan? George listens to “Let’s Twist Again”, the song her mother liked so much, and wonders if, possibly, she was both.

How to be both smith

It is George who is Francesco’s primary twin. Each of their stories begins as if in argument about the nature of the novel: Francesco’s in a cascade of acrobatic, poetic language; George’s with questions about the “moral conundrum” of art. When her mother asks George to imagine she is an artist trying to evaluate the worth of her work, the two stories come together and, like Alice, seem to pass through either side of the looking glass, their relation now a proliferating mystery for the reader to puzzle over. At least, this is how it will seem to half of Smith’s readers. For the book is being published in two versions, one with Francesco’s story first, one with George’s. The reader’s perception will vary depending upon which version the reader happens upon, which side of the story they enter first. It’s just one of the many ways in which Smith dramatizes how a book works: readings differ, comprehension varies (later George compares the amount her mother sees when looking at a painting with her own limited understanding). Another might be that there is freedom in a book: you can take or leave whatever you want from it. As George’s mother drily observes – in contrast to her own pedagogic art – “People like things not to be too meaningful”.

The ardent reader however, the one compelled to track down meanings, might uncover after further twists, how Smith plays upon literary erotics, enacting the way writers introduce something unfamiliar and unpredictable to their readers. When Francesco happens upon a foreign worker on the road and the two of them make love in a copse of trees, their hands, tongues, entering one another, he tells her his “infidel word” for her means “you who exceed expectations”.  Or they may see that Francesco is more fictional than George – an imaginative proposition conjured from our scant information about the (male) artist Francesco del Cossa (1430-1477), whose frescoes George and her mother visit in Italy; and, for the same reason, more realistic, having this connection to a worldly figure beyond the text.

Smith encourages such noticing, inviting readers to peel back the layers in her story as art restorers once peeled back plaster to reveal Dell Cossa’s frescoes. She is scrupulous in her undertaking to present several possibilities at any given moment, signifying a desire to be open and democratic. And like everything in her mutable world, this recasts the initial proposition or the first impression. So: How To Be both is approachable, “friendly” to the reader in its convivial tone, in the way it embraces diversity and describes the manner of its staging. Yet precisely because of this demythologizing, Smith’s novel also holds itself aloft, drawing attention to its artfulness and the authority in its making.

Artful (2006) was the title of one of Smith’s earlier book, a work operating in the borderlands between fiction and non-fiction. Like How To Be Both, it has a ghost story and, through a series of lecture notes left by a dead lover, it meditates on how stories are always haunted and so, to a degree, paranoid; how they are indebted to the dead, even as they are written in death’s defiance. The linearity of narrative, its tolling of time, is what gives the novel its deathly cast, explaining why novelists from Sterne to Calvino tried to kick against the inevitable end and affirm life. Smith notes contemporary writers like José Saramago raging against the dead-hand of linearity, because it denies the rich experience of life, where multiple things happen simultaneously. And yet, she reminds us, “the novel is bound to be linear…even when it seems to or attempts to deny linearity.” Moreover, she points out in one ‘lecture’ (“You Must Remember This: why we have time and why time has us”), we should think twice about the abolition of time for this is what lends meaning to stories: sequence leads to consequence and therein lies morality. “Time means. Time will tell”, she writes, “It’s consequence, suspense, mortality. Morality.”

Knowing all this, Smith now takes the novel forward with a kind of categorical dodge or twist (in Artful she remarks how pleasing it is that, ultimately, the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist seems to give both story and writer, the slip). Her novel’s alternative versions deny any absolute conclusion, shifting the balance of meaning from the end to the interplay between Francesco’s and George’s story (the way they enter one another). Each becomes more porous as ideas flow between them. In Francesco’s story, when her father dies she feels that the roof of her head might blow off, while in George’s, the psychological impact of her mother’s death seems to infect the family home, causing water to leak through the roof and mould to sprout on the wall. How To Be Both is full of images of decomposition, of walls and words breaking apart. For Smith, though, decay and death are not signs of literary exhaustion but the precondition for creation, like the damp surfaces needed to paint a fresco. One of the book’s epigraphs from Hannah Arendt reflects on this state: “what was once alive…‘suffers a sea-change’ and survives in new crystallized forms and shapes…as though they waited only for the pearl diver who will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.”

There are many pearls seeding Smith’s novel: ideas about originality (“what practice is really all about”), about taste and pleasure (constant references to the things her characters “like”), about how we value art (taking up the debate begun by David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith on writing as a “gift”), about the fascination and barrenness of formalism (the woman tracking George’s mother seduces her with a book sealed in a glass box, which might or might not contain any words), and about the sacred or shamanistic properties of art: the element of magic or trickery that only a great artist in full control of her medium can perform, which results in transformation. However, the biggest sea-change for the novel is that the two equal parts of How To Be Both create continuity, (never-ending, they, too, carry on), allowing Smith to shrug off the irrevocable conclusion and slip morality back into the ongoing story. Here it becomes less a final judgment and more a matter of dialectics – made in the joyful, erotic back and forth of questioning and discovery. Like the saints in Francesco del Cossa’s paintings, Smith opens our eyes to many points of view and lifts us “twisting upwards”, spinning through the air with everything in play.

Francesco del Cossa, Santa Lucia, 1473-4.

Francesco del Cossa, Santa Lucia, 1473-4.

A version of this review appeared as ‘Everything in Play in the TLS on 19.9.2014.

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