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.

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