how to be both by Ali Smith

how to be both tells two stories: the story of George, a teenager grieving for her mother and falling in love for the first time and the story of the Renaissance Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose talent is great but of whom little is known. If you want to read the novel without spoilers, stop here, and skip to the penultimate paragraph. If you don’t mind a few spoilers, read on.

The stories of Francesco and George interlink, in that Francesco is roughly brought back to some kind of life through George. Her mother found something brilliant, something friendly and clever in Francesco’s paintings and after she dies George wants to understand what it was her mother found so interesting. George and her friend consider writing about Francesco as part of their empathy/sympathy homework because so little is know about him and they could make a lot of it up:

       You can’t just make stuff up about real people, George says.

       We make stuff up about real people all the time, H says. Right now you’re making stuff up about me. And I’m definitely making stuff up about you. You know I am.

       George blushes, then is surprised to find she’s blushing. She turns away. She thinks something else quick; she thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

And whether Francesco’s story is something George or H make up we don’t know. Their worries about language and how he would be speaking an old form of Italian hover over Francesco’s first person in the way Francesco hovers over George: ambiguously.

The idea of being both is of course at the centre of all of this because their stories more than interlink, they are part of each other, both separate and entwined. Just like the other strands of thought in George’s narrative, DNA, there are two strands that form one being. Both George and Francesco assume the other is male, both are wrong. They assume that they have little in common, but both have dead mothers who were loving, intelligent and inspiring. They both have fluid sexualities. They both believe they deserve the best of others. Both of their narratives keep the present and the past alive together, inhabiting Renaissance Italy, their mothers as living beings and the modern day England all at once: ‘Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.’ The double narrative, where the second half of the book repeats the two narratives but in a different order, is Ali Smith’s way of offering this simultaneity. As George’s mother argues, ‘Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can’t see them happening in front of us?’ And just to play out another of her points about being both, though you wouldn’t know this unless you read about it or picked up more than one copy of the book, some of the editions of how to be both are printed with Francesco’s narrative first and some with George’s narrative first. As George’s mother also says, ‘which comes first?… What we see or how we see?’ Everything in the narratives of each story is there for us to see but how we see it changes how we read it. What we know shapes what we see.

So we find ourselves contemplating the observer. For Francesco observation is her livelihood but what makes her paintings modern or at least in tune with George and her mother, is that she paints a vision of the world that sees beyond surface rendering, that refuses to play the game society and influence have dictated: her paintings are political, playing to both lazy and attentive observers who will see what they need to see. She paints great councillors as babies naked in their pomposity and naivety or born to rule justly, depending on how you choose to see it. She paints sexual messages into the background of portraits that could just be seen as rocks and buildings. She dies prepared to wear her skin like a raw jacket because, like the musician Marsyas that her mother told her about, she was prepared to risk her skin for her art. She sees a man dying of plague and understands nature as something ‘both seeing and blind’. The musician Marsyas dared to take up Apollo’s challenge to see who could play more beautiful music. The price of failure was to be flayed alive, but, says his mother, ‘the skin of Marsyas slipped off as easily as a tomato’s will in warm water to allow the red raw sweetness out of the fruit below. And the sight of such release moved everyone who saw it to a strength of feeling more than any music anywhere played by any musician or god.’ It is no surprise it was the ‘sight’ of this released skin that brought such strength of feeling.

In the modern day of George’s England the observing eye is symbolised by a surveillance camera, which marks the start of George’s narrative. George, like her mother, believes her mother was being spied upon. The spy, they believe, is a woman for whom George’s mother developed a strong attachment. In the end, George spies on this woman herself, setting up shop outside of her house, painting eyes upon the wall opposite so that even when George isn’t there the eyes are. And it’s hard to know if this is abusive or not because as her mother said of her experience of being spied on ‘I quite liked it. … The being seen. The being watched. It makes life very, well I don’t know. Pert.’ There are also the eyes of the internet where the titillation of this pleasure at being watched is exploited in the extreme. Things can be seen again and again in real time regardless of when they took place. George feels the need to witness one girl’s debasement over and over because she sees the porn film differently, because she feels she sees the girl differently and she wants to honour this girl as a being in her own right, wants to suffer along with her, be there for her. In response to her father’s cynicism about this kind of witnessing, which he says will do nothing to help the girl, she says ‘I’ve got eyes’.

These eyes that mark the wall opposite the house of a spy [walls are important because they are both inside and out – Francesco’s father was also a brick maker and layer], or adorn the flowers held in the hand of Francesco’s St Lucia who also has sightless eyes, or Francesco’s own eyes burning out from the darkness behind his depiction of the Duke of Ferrara, as Justice in the mural in Italy, or the eyes that watch pornography or adverts [there is a whole extra layer about George’s mother who started a movement of Subverts, pop ups that subvert marketing’s status quo], or that work through the earth, are all there to encourage us to look properly, to look thoroughly, to question what we see.

At the end of the novel I feel, as I often feel when reading Ali Smith, both inspired and irked: the element of gimmick that lingers over publishing two stories twice in a different order is playful, attractive and irritating. Do we need to reread the repeated stories? How many people will? Certainly we would get something from them, but there is an arrogance in this desire to make us look again, to ask us to pay more attention to the text, but perhaps it is a necessary gimmick, a necessary arrogance in a time when we do not attend to anything for long, especially when everything in the novel asks us to look again and look closer. There is a depth to Ali Smith’s surface play that requires attention and rewards it. Enticing, enthralling, ensnaring, this is a novel that shows how brilliantly the form can stretch to explore our world, our world in which startlingly real images of dinosaurs drive past us everyday on the side of vans advertising broadband speed, our world in which the past and the present live in a simultaneity that begs interpretation. how to be both is a brilliant novel, brimming with so much more than one little review can contain, a novel which gets my vote for the Man Booker.

Next week I’m reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, my fourth novel on the short list of the Man Booker. I hope to read The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan before the announcement on 14th October.

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo is the story of Peter Els’ lifelong love of music as his means to understand the code of life beyond that of humanity into the distant past and the alien future. A clarinettist whose father wanted him to be a chemist, Peter falls in love with a cellist who argues his musical brilliance is too good to be thrown away on a life of chemistry and yet by the end of his life, retired and isolated Peter returns to the chemical building blocks of life and tries, instead of teasing music from life, to put music into DNA. Unsurprisingly, his homemade biochemistry alerts the authorities. They see the manipulation of bacteria as a possible terrorist threat. His reaction is to flea, hoping for some final recompense for a life lived without considering the full consequences.

There is so much of this novel that I wanted to love. I enjoy descriptions of music, I embrace the need to find something that coheres for one moment an endless bafflement at life. And yet. And yet there was something eerie about this book as if, like a melody too often played, I had heard it before, its echo an earworm that niggled at me and forced me to read at lightening speed partly through frustration – what was this sound I had heard before? – but also a little through boredom – when would it end? That was what triggered my epiphany. The reason this book couldn’t leap from the Man Booker long list to the short list was that the story of the American male life-crisis has started to tire even those invested with the power of awards. I think this is what the Great American Novel has become: a man in later years on one last pilgrimage – one that he sees will undoubtedly fail – to apologise for his selfishness, his absence, his inability to do the daily work of living with others; the account of a deeply flawed man whom we are nonetheless meant to pity because he meant well. Well I’ve read it and burned the t-shirt.

I’m not saying that this isn’t a well-written and interesting novel. I’m not saying I don’t embrace many of the themes and understand an aging attitude to the reasons for, and efforts of, creativity, but I just wish the novel had stepped beyond a vision of itself as an addition to a genre that needs to get over itself. I also wonder if the title was too easily arrived at and not fought for. Yes, there are those who say Orfeo, or Orpheus, brought medicine to men, so Peter’s scientific tinkering has a mythical mirror, but what about the descent into hell or the love of young boys or his inability not to look back (Peter does do a lot of looking back but I think he gains rather than loses from the experience)? I wonder if I’ve missed some parallels.

Having said that, I’m sure a more musical individual would find much more in Orfeo and would embrace Peter as the tragic hero Richard Powers no doubt intends him to be. Of course, in many ways, his fall also hints at a wider tragedy being played out by America itself and that is interesting, but I wish this were a fresh take, a view from a different perspective, not the same old whinings of a man regretting single-mindedness but the song as it may be taken on by the next generation. That would be a new breed of Great American novel.

Next week I’m reading Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The narrator of The Wake, Buccmaster, is a free landowner in the Fens at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. His sons are taken by the war; his wife is raped and burned in her own house; his land is burned and left to grow wild. Buccmaster is left with nothing but a sense of vengeance and so he wanders into the fens and woods caught in the madness of war. Taking his grandfather’s sword, which his grandfather claimed came from the old English God of welder’s himself, Buccmaster seeks men who will follow him and fight against all foreigners of land and belief.

As the novel progresses the history of Buccmaster’s private battle, in which he and his father and sister clashed over beliefs in old English gods or Christ, reveals Buccmaster as a dangerous man whose religious beliefs take him to the edge of sanity.

I enjoyed Buccmaster’s tale immensely. Though it took some effort to immerse myself in the shadow prose of Old and modern English, it was worth it. There were moments of great beauty. The mystery of an untamed land rich in nature’s powers was brilliantly created by this pseudo-language, providing us with an opaque veil through which old England could be spied upon: ‘there is a sceat a sceat of light that is between this world and others and that sum times and in sum places this sceat is thynne and can be seen through. on this daeg in this ham the sceat was thynne and scriffran in the light wind and through it i colde see all that the world triewely was beyond this small place of small men and deorc and strong and of great beuty and fear was what i saw’

Despite the poetry of such moments, religious fanaticism is one of the novel’s most frightening themes, intentionally or not. For Buccmaster becomes a man made mad by belief and the old gods, powerfully rendered as they are, are weakened by the way in which he acts upon their behalf. This becomes a great question within the novel: did Kingsnorth intend to undermine the gods he resurrects? Why? In some ways I am reminded of old hagiographies (later in chronological time but no less mystical), of the recorded visions of saints like Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen. Buccmaster is writing down his own visions, visions of the old gods of England who, through him, will ride again and make England strong. I suppose it is therefore inevitable that his account is masterful in its mythologizing of Buccmaster’s own life and experience, but this did sometimes feel at odds with the point of view of the narrative. I am not an old English scholar though, and cannot be sure how fixed such a thing as point of view would have been and in many ways it feels important to be able to see through Buccmaster’s reinvention of his past.

Regardless of your reading of his communion with the old gods, Buccmaster’s tale does bring old England alive, does pose live questions about our history and the recurrence of war and religion. I might have enjoyed a novel about the documented green man, Hereward, a leader of the resistance against the French invasion, but perhaps it would have catered more to a straight-forward contemporary account of historical interest rather than a dreamlike revisiting of the narrative frameworks of the past that allows for a more interesting review of our own time because we see it afresh, as if walking out of dense forest into the clearing.

The Wake is a fascinating, ingenious novel, which though perhaps a little arrogant, is brave and unwavering its singularity and vision. I’m not surprised it has been left off the short list for this year’s Man Booker; this is not a crowd-pleaser of a book, this is a genuinely interesting novel breathing new life into old myths. For me, The Wake takes magical realism into the realm of history, blowing open our contemporary, dry take on the world around us.

Next week I’ll be reading Orfeo, by Richard Powers, another book on the long list of the 2014 Man Booker prize that didn’t make it to the short list. The following week I will be reading How to be both by Ali Smith. I plan to end this year of reading and reviewing a book a week as I began, decided for myself who I feel should win the Man Booker. A list of my favourite books of the year will also follow in October. Feel free to comment, disagree, or suggest new books for me to read.

The Cave by José Saramago

The Cave is a novel of many stories. It is the story of an ageing man, Cipriano Algor, finding new love even as his livelihood is threatened. It is a story about families and the development of intimate human relationships. It is the story of the pioneer, seeking a new life away from what once was home. It is the story of technology against tradition, power against the individual, capitalist totalitarianism and revolution. It is a story where the true philosophers are found in all classes and seem more likely to evolve in those whose brains are still active in their fingers, working with the very substance from which we derive; in this case potters and clay. And the list could go on.  Offering a review of the novel would therefore much deplete the ground Saramago tries to cover.

Whilst the unfolding of the characters lives is rendered beautifully, carefully expressing the multiple ways in which people in close relationships communicate through even the most simple of phrases, there is a veiled fear of technology that muddies the waters of Saramago’s ultimate argument in which the cave is shown to be the creation of the Centre who use consumerism to lure more and more citizens under their carefully veiled totalitarian rule. His argument is appealing. The further humans are drawn into the world of advertisements, of wanting for wanting’s sake, of security from the natural world, of simulated experience, the further they are from interacting with the real or natural world and the more they rely upon that simulated world. My only issue is with the terms natural and artificial. Whilst the power dynamics of Saramago’s Centre remain true to comparable corporations in real life, not all ‘artificial’ developments can necessarily be considered bad. I mean, where would we stop? Is Saramago suggesting that anything that doesn’t involve hard physical labour is potentially threatening? I don’t think so, but perhaps there will be a time when a break with modern developments is required. Perhaps consumerism has already bound us to a life in which we stare at a wall of shadows.

That of course is the heart of the novel: Plato’s cave. Deep within the walls of the growing Centre the truth of the prison they are building and developing day by day is uncovered. But when dangerous secrets are redefined as propaganda, the truth is something only a few can see.

In some ways the denouement of The Cave happens rather quickly. How Cipriano Algor’s family gets to the Centre has more page weight than any potential escape. However, the build up to the Centre allows for the development of all the other narratives about creation, love, and the delicate nature of what it means to be a human being. The story of Found, the dog Cipriano finds sleeping in the old kennel in the yard, is central to an exploration of being. Found’s instinct and thought form a huge part of what it is to be human, a bestial nobility that stands in the face of the Centre and its no pet rule, that offers a notion of man as part of the whole of nature, not something that stands outside it.

Ultimately, The Cave is a beautiful and complex novel that pokes holes in our unconscious acceptance of modern life. I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’ll be reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, followed by Orfeo by Richard Powers.