A book that requires no introduction, Ali Smith’s six novel How to be both might well be described as the book of 2014 having scooped both the Goldsmith Prize and the Costa Prize while only narrowly missing out on the Man Booker. The novel has been frequently labelled an experimental work of fiction for its original structure which is made up of two narratives which are offered to readers in a random order depending on which edition your pick up. The first narrative provides an account of artist Francescho del Cossa and his journey through Renaissance Italy while the other is told from the perspective of 16-year-old English student George who is trying to come to terms with the recent passing of her mother. Each narrative reverberates off the other to abound with intertextual references that cleverly build up textured layers of meaning that give the reader plenty to mull over. Despite the two central characters seemingly being worlds apart in terms of time, culture and occupation, and regardless of the order in which you read the narratives, the two wonderful female protagonists illuminate common central themes and motifs that resonate between both stories and offer poignant universal truths about art itself.
My edition of How to be both begins with Francescho del Cossa ‘being pulled by [his] mouth on a hood… upwards past the maggots and worms and the bones and the rockwork’ until he finds as a ghost in London’s National Gallery confronted by a painting he soon identifies as one he himself composed many centuries ago. After adjusting to his surrounds, del Cossa soon details the processes of his composition of this work before then reflecting on the work of his contemporaries which deck the surrounding walls. In doing so, the reader is organically transported from 21st century London back to the artist’s world in Renaissance Italy where we find what is essentially a biography of del Cossa but which relies much more heavily on narrative and key events than on chronology. Ali Smith imaginatively recreates the historic Francesco del Cossa as a female, one who was seduced to stop waddling around swathed in her mother’s clothes in exchange for her father’s promise that he would support Francescho in her quest to become an artist after she shows extraordinary natural talent—but only if she agrees to ‘become’ a boy. We are given the inside story on Francescho’s artistic development which takes us from humble beginnings and happiness in the family home all the way to demanding more money from powerful patrons due to a belief in his own superior artistic talents. En route we are greeted with Francescho’s accounts of frequenting local brothels where he is able to hone his craft by sketching prostitutes for payment while also undergoing a sexual awakening thanks to a ‘black-haired and dark-skinned’ girl named Isotta who ‘made [Francescho] feel something 1000 times stronger than any fear, and … [I] comprehended that this girl was now all delight’ (p.85).
George, the protagonist of the second narrative (or first, depending on your copy) shares many similarities with Francescho: for one, both characters are females dressed up under masculine names or identities, they both share meticulous, naturally inquisitive personalities, have lost their mothers at an early age and develop meaningful and sensual relationships with enigmatic and stimulating women. George’s story centres on two main strands: the first revolves around her relationship with her deceased mother, a relationship which is ironically strengthened as time passes and George comes to learn about her mother through an exploration of her own memories and consequently discovering her mother’s interests and passions; the second strand outlines George’s newly-found friendship with H, a strong-willed, independent and debonair classmate who intrigues George and with whom she engages in very rich, subtle and nuanced conversations, especially towards the end of the novel, the dialogue of which I felt to be some of the strongest writing in a superb work.
How to be both is undoubtedly an excellent book; it is intricately crafted, intelligent, meditative and thought provoking. Yet I can’t help but feel that the book has been dealt a disservice by those who have focused too heavily on the supposedly original and experimental form and structure of the novel. Yes, the book’s structure is clever and creates two finely balanced and juxtaposing texts, yet I just didn’t find it to be as original or experimental as the hype suggests. Do good short story writers not use multiple different yet inter-related narratives to explore central themes, ideas and motifs which bind a collection as a whole? In a single novel too, I can think, off the top of my head, of a writer such as David Mitchell who, in novels like The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, creates several narratives which are interconnected and illuminate the work as a whole. People might argue that writers like Mitchell allow their several narratives to converge by the novel’s end to give a sense of roundness and completion, yet I felt this same roundness was also true of How to be both. Although in this novel the two different narratives at first glance seem polarised and far removed from one another, they are also carefully enmeshed, sewn together gorgeously by Smith using both language and narrative, and in the end I almost felt as though the two narratives mirror each other in many ways, despite their explicit differences.
I took the most pleasure from How to be both in the novel’s discussion of one of the central themes, the role of art, how we relate to art, the value of it and the power of art to transport, inform and challenge its audiences. Since I read the story of Francescho first, when his work was being discussed by George and her mother in the second narrative I inevitably had a much larger context to the meticulous details of the composition of Francescho’s work, the stories behind the intricate details of his paintings, an idea of the efforts he went to to form different colours, as well as the personal struggle Francescho del Cossa had to go through to even reach the point where he could paint frescos on the walls of grand patrons. George, her interest piqued by her mother, is able to dissect and become engrossed in del Cossa’s art, and in one of my favourite passages of the book Ali Smith beautifully describes exactly how George becomes fixated on and begins to extract the different elements of one of his frescos:
‘The painting is in a room of other pictures by painters from around the same time. At first all these pictures by other people look more interesting than this one, which just looks like another religious picture (first reason not to look) of a rather severe-faced monk (second reason not to look) who’s ready and waiting with his finger up, holding a book up and open in his other hand, with which, both finger and book, it looks like he’ll probably admonish anyone who does not stop and look at him (third reason not to look).
But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is.
Then there’s the stone road off to the side of him which seems to be changing from road into a waterfall as you look, the paving stones literally morphing, stone to water.
That lets you start to see that the picture is full of things you’d not expect…’ (pp.340-1)
At the novel’s beginning when Francescho is dragged to the National Gallery, his first observation is to notice ‘A boy in front of a painting’. This ‘boy’ we later discover to be George passing her beady eye over Francescho’s painting, delving into the picture’s details, paying it the attention it so clearly deserves while crowds of people stream past, many of whom can’t even be bothered to pass an eye over the work as they queue up to see whatever is the most famous work in that gallery. How to be both provides a stark reminder, in an age of constant busyness, in a society where I can pick up such an astonishing book for almost the same price as a pint of lager at my local bookshop, that every piece of art has a fascinating, personal story behind it waiting to be explored, that every piece of art is worthy of much more attention than we so often give, and crucially to spend more time with the art that we love in order to engage thoughtfully with older cultures as well as to cultivate our present selves.