13 October, 2014Issue 26.1FictionLiterature

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Laura Ludtke

BothAli Smith
How to be Both
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
384 pages
ISBN 9780241145210


There are many ways to be both: simultaneously, equivalently, ambiguously, indecisively, essentially, contradictorily. One can be of dual nature, doubled, duplicitous, repeated, revisited, revised. All of this, and more, is the case in Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, where the bifurcated narratives of “Eye” and “Camera” intertwine and overlap, and the story turns inwards on itself, until its Möbius strip-style structure becomes more like a web of images and incidents. Smith pairs two stories––that of the teenage George (Georgia) who has recently lost her mother, and that of the disembodied consciousness of the early-Renaissance painter Francescho del Cossa, caught in a state between remembering and forgetting––making unwitting companions of the novel’s two protagonists.

Whether one begins with “Eye” or with “Camera” (printed editions are available with one or the other as starting points; the e-book edition contains both, leaving the reader to make the choice of which order to pursue), the second narrative makes clear that it is neither a retelling of the same story from a different perspective––as in Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions or Jean Rhys’ revisitation of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea––nor a discrete story-within-a-story, but a simultaneous and interpenetrating account. The difficulty is that this is a simultaneity rendered near impossible by the linear nature of reading and writing. But this is where the importance of Smith’s disruptive and tangential style of narration comes in, for without the variously interpenetrating strands of its web, How To Be Both would not achieve the sense of completeness its complexity demands. The mind connects the dots, so to speak, and in the very act of reading it revises its previous readings to reveal a remembered narrative unfolding not within, but throughout the current one.

Fortunately, Ali Smith is already a master of disruptive and tangential narratives that are nevertheless complete. This is especially the case in “True Short Story” from her collection The First Person and Other Stories (2008), where she intertwines the story of a friend’s illness with an argument over whether the differences between the novel and the short story can be described using the analogy of the nymph and the whore. When asked about her pairings of the mundane with the theoretical/mythological/historical/literary at a lecture held at St Anne’s College, Oxford earlier this year, Smith replied that such connections are often shaped by the commissions she receives. Writing novels, as opposed to short stories, need not be a matter of commercial transaction but of craft, passion, and conviction.

The novel is structured as a pair of narratives––narratives that are further bifurcated into the present and recent past or, in the case of Francescho, distant past–a structure that exemplifies Smith’s success with parallel and interpenetrating story lines. Whereas Francescho’s contemporary, Matteo Maria Boiardo (the court poet of the Este family at Ferrara) died with his ever-expanding and increasingly complicated epic poem Orlando Innamorato half finished, leaving his successor, Ludovico Ariosto, to masterfully weave in all of his loose ends in a pattern of his own making––Orlando Furioso––Smith expands and contracts her narratives as needed, at times interweaving and at times intercutting them to emphasis resonances and divergences. She can both open and close.

The division of the narratives––that “before and after thing”, as George explains––is bounded by mourning and loss. For George, processing her mother’s sudden death and the mysteries associated with a parent’s premature passing allows her to be both in the past and in the present, sometimes in the moment, sometimes in a memory. Her bi-modality enables her recovery of some aspects of her former self and fuels her realisation that, although “nothing will ever not be like this again”, some things are unrecoverable.

Francescho, on the other hand, can only reconcile the disjunctive experience of awakening into a strange, future world where she neither understands the language nor its technology (why are there no horses? why are brick walls so poorly made? by what sort of magic are portraits made on tablets?) as imagining it as a sort of purgatorium. We see this world through the eyes of an accomplished painter. She perceives, for instance, the relationship between George and her friend H., for “they are sharp and bright together as the skies of 2 new lemons”. Her beloved horse, Mattone, who “was a creature of symmetries and a reminder that nature is herself a bona fide artist of intent both dark and light.”

In a way, the eye is her only way of knowing, whereas the word is ours. Attempting to describe the fresco Cossa painted in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Geroge hones in on the man strangling the duck: “This is only detail. There are details like it eveywhere.” And, while George might not have the capacity to bring the frescos to life, through Francescho’s narrative, Smith is. Next to her Apollo is “the black hole of sun […] a little like a black seed, a burnt walnut or the anus of a cat, which is what the sun looks like if you look to long at the sun”; the citizens of Ferrara are rendered as “an infinite crowd of babies swarming out of a hole in the ground as if conjured from nothing.” Like her creator, Francescho has an eye for the knowingly complex and contradictory. As an artist, she brings the world of art colliding into that of experience, even in her almost-poetics: “I like very much a foot, say, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality.”

In this way, Smith captures and accounts for the knowingness in the frescos considered almost too precocious in the 15th century. For Francescho’s narrative is also a revisionist one. Little is known about the real Francescho del Cossa (c. 1430–1477) other than that he wrote a letter to Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena (and later of Ferrara), asking for better pay. Smith offers a gendered rereading of history, inserting women into instances of ambiguity. Thus, while this episode serves as the inspiration for George’s mother’s moral conundrum of the value of art and the impetus of their trip to Italy, it also yokes the two narratives together, working around both what is known and what is assumed: that Francescho was a man. The gendered division in art in the early-Renaissance period is apparent in the division between those hands used to make blue (a woman’s) and those permitted to apply it (a man’s). Thus, Francescho’s determination “to be an expert at the painting of hands and be good at the grinding of blue and the using of blue, both” is not only a revision but a subversion; her reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Pittura as supporting “the bareness and pliability it takes, ho, to be both” is a generous one.

Though it has historical undertones, How To Be Both is also a timely novel, with its surveillance plot, subverts, and social media: George believes her mother was being watched by the Intelligence Services; her mother was an economist who was also part of a subversive online movement juxtaposing art and the failures of capitalism; George is bullied by girls who record the sound of her urinating on a phone and threaten to post it online; meanwhile she uses her smart phone to stalk her mother’s mysterious friend, Lisa Goliard. George may be a “migrant of her own existence”, but she also realises that “we’re all migrants of our own existence now.”

Being comfortable with the fact that something can be two things at once, as both George and Francescho are (eventually), is a sign of a mature mind. How To Be Both, with its deft representation of simultaneity and interpenetrating narratives, by turns provocative, sardonic, and genuine (like George and Francescho’s fresco), is readable throughout. It is also on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (to be announced tomorrow) and the Goldsmiths Prize (to be announced on 12 November). This has to be the year of Ali Smith.

Laura Ludtke is a final-year D.Phil. in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.