How To Be Both, Ali Smith

I find with this blog that some books can be reviewed almost from the moment you finish them. Others, I need time to … ruminate. To cogitate. To digest. To reflect on.

This book, Ali Smith’s Man Booker Shortlisted How To Be Both, definitely falls into that latter category. It is beautiful. It is thoughtful. It is clever, smart and profound. Funny, touching and sad.

The novel is in two parts and one quirk of the publishing is that some copies commence with one story; others start with the second. I actually had this as both an e-book which began with the story of Francesco del Cossa, a renaissance painter. Simultaneously, my audiobook version started with the story of Georgia, a contemporary teenage girl. I literally had both!

The two characters are connected in a dazzling array of parallels between their stories, their lives, their experiences. Their stories don’t simply parallel each other’s: they intertwine and weave and writhe around and through each other.

Let’s consider the title: what boths are we being shown how to be?

Certainly, this novel clearly explores our capacity to be both male and female. It took me a little while to realise that Francesco was a girl and pretty much as soon as I did she bound her chest and dressed as a man to be accepted as an artist. George has been given a deliberately ambiguous name and her friendship with the equally ambiguously named ‘H’ starts to explore her sexuality. Neither George, nor her wonderfully created mother, realise that Francesco is female. This exploration of gender and sexuality was no surprise: having read her Girl Meets Boy, itself based on Ovid’s account of Iphys in his Metamorphoses, some years ago now.

We are also asked to be both in the past and present, both alive and dead: Francesco’s life in Renaissance Italy is gorgeously captured for us and made alive; she is brought to the present by George’s interest in her art; Smith grounds George in our present with her text messages, iPad and technology; and George keeps her mother alive by reliving her memories and creating rituals. Ironically, the dead characters (Francesco and George’s mother) almost felt the most alive. This issue of past and present is also addressed at a grammatical level as George constantly reminds herself of the appropriate tense to use to discuss her mother.

We also explore the dichotomies between the real and the painted – and by extension the unreal; the painter and the painting; the art and the viewer; the observer and the observed. As I was reading, and I don’t know whether this is true of any other reader, I assumed that Francesco del Cossa was an invention and only when idly googling did I discover that she was real, that the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos exist in Ferrara, which is itself a city I am familiar with through literature and the staple GCSE poem My Last Duchess by Browning. A poem which is itself based on an historical scandal – and which accuses the Duke, quite wrongly of having his first wife killed. Misrepresentation, history, fiction, reality, creativity all twining around each other. What actually is the real? And does it really matter?

Smith’s language throughout was gorgeous: sparse and even spare at times, realistic and painful at others, and warm elsewhere. There are philosophical and political stances explored in the novel but at no time does it detract from the humanity created within its pages.

Within the novel, George’s mother refers to Francesco’s art as

so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.
She turns to George.
It’s a bit like you, she says.

That formulation seems a perfect description of this novel itself: friendly, warm, generous, sardonic.

As a footnote, the novel I’ve moved onto now is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which also revolves around art, another dead mother and a grieving child. That novel seems to luxuriate in its own language and descriptions – all of which is fine! – but a marked contrast to Smith!

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