Saturday, 7 March 2015

How to be both by Ali Smith

Reviewer: by Catriona Troth

What we thought: Like Carol Shield’s Happenstance, How to Be Both is a book in two halves, and depending which version one has, the two halves are presented to be read in a different order.

One half is narrated by the real-life painter, Francesco (or is it Francesca?) del Cossa, painter of some remarkable 15thC frescos in the Schifanoia Palace (‘the palace of not being bored’) in Ferrara. The only reason we know about this painter is because of a letter he wrote asking to be paid more than other painters for his work on those frescos, because of his superior skill.

“Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by myself: so if you, your Highness really don't want to give me more than 10 bolognini per square foot, I'd be losing 40 or 50 ducats…”

The other half is narrated by George, ‘a child of the child of the sixties,’ a teenager struggling to cope after the sudden death of her mother who, the previous summer, had stumbled on the existence of Francesco and whisked George and her brother off to Ferrara to see the frescos.

In the version of the book I read, it opens with a visual stream of consciousness – words weaving back and forth across the page like The Mouse’s Tail in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Francesco’s consciousness protrudes into our world, as he watches George sitting in the National Gallery, in front of the only one of his paintings on display in Britain. Thereafter we follow, and try and interpret, George’s behaviour, while at the same time experiencing memories of Francesco’s own life.

The other half is a more straightforward narrative. It begins at an earlier point in George’s life - midnight on the New Year’s Eve following her mother’s death. She is alone in the house with her little brother, in a bedroom with a leaking ceiling, listening to the fireworks going off. Gradually we learn enough about her life to make sense of what Francesco observed, as she creates rituals to help deal with the loss of her mother and relives that last trip to Ferrara.

This book explores grief and loss and the process of mourning. Both George and Francesco lose their mothers as young adolescents and end up reinventing themselves through the process of recovery.

But more than that, the novel plays with the idea of art, and our perceptions of art, and the act of seeing itself. What happens, for example, when you look at one thing really closely, be it a work of art or a subject under surveillance? And what power is there in subverting conventional ideas of art? 

Both Francesco and George’s mother are engaged in subtle acts of subversion. Francesco models his Graces on prostitutes, and includes, in his ‘The Triumph of Minerva’, a dark-skinned infidel dressed in rags. George’s mother is a founder member of the Subverts, a group using pop-up technology to subvert political things with art, and art with politics. Smith, meanwhile, subverts language, playing puns with minotaur and monitor, and riffing on the several meanings of plot.

Impossible not to wonder what it would have been like to read the book in the other order. To read George’s story first would arguably be more logical. More of what Francesco sees would make sense, if we already know George’s story. But would that rob the reader of a sense of mystery, of the urgency of wanting to know more?

As George’s mother says, in the context of the artists’ cartoons revealed beneath frescos damaged in a flood:

“But which came first ... the chicken or the egg. The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

“The picture below came first, says George. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the picture on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all?”

Playful, beguiling, with layers of meaning that reveal themselves the more you think about what you’ve read, this is a book to be read and re-read.

You can read Ali Smith’s article in the Guardian, about how she was inspired to write How to be Both, here:

And you can explore the work of Francesco del Cossa in the Palace of Schifanoia here:

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn

Avoid if you dislike: non-linear narratives, the playful mixing of the historical and the present day

Perfect Accompaniment: antipasto of asparagus and salami, coppiette rolls and a bottle of Barolo

Genre: Literary Fiction

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