‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith

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‘[…] this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing’.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.43

Based on my enjoyment of one of Ali Smith’s earlier novels, The Accidental – which I read in my late teens – and inspired by a talk I witnessed last year, by Smith herself (before I departed for Hong Kong), I picked up her latest book with no prior knowledge of the acclaim it was receiving before it was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The title, itself, was intriguing enough to catch my attention; I instantly imagined a crossing of gender binaries and was not surprised to see this theme interweave throughout the story. However, How to Be Both is about so much more than this. It not only explores how a person can be both male and female, past or present; but it also explores how the novel form can be read both ways. There is not just one edition of Ali Smith’s latest book, but two. Made up of two parts that are exactly the same, word for word, one edition will begin with the tale of Francesco del Cossa – a brilliant fresco painter from fifteenth-century Italy, of which not much is known – whilst the other edition will begin with George – a present-day teenage girl who has recently lost her mother.

Left to chance, I happened to pick up the edition of How to Be Both which started with the narrative of Francesco del Cossa (aka, Francesca). Having attempted to read the novel a couple of times, I was initially struck by the opening passage which didn’t look very conventional. Sentences are stretched and shortened and cut off in the middle of thought to create a zig-zag shape across the page. It took me a couple of attempts to make it past the first few pages, but I think that had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to decipher the confusion. Once I had made up my mind not to fully undertand everything, I quickly settled into the novel where Ali Smith’s reimagining of this little-known artist’s past was vividly depicted and brought to life.

‘[…] many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.95

Not much is known about the real-life Francesco del Cossa. If it wasn’t for a letter he sent to Duke Borso to ask for more money when he was commissioned to paint a fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia, one of his greatest accomplishments would have been attributed to his better-known contemporary, Cosimo Tura. It is this omission of information that Ali Smith plays on wonderfully. The fact that we know so little about del Cossa means that Smith is able to shift identities and genders under the guise of artistic license. Del Cossa is given a public, male identity as well as a private, female identity.

‘You are other than I thought, he said.

I nodded.

    Then the fault is with your thinking, or with the person who has changed your thinking, not with me, I said’.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.93

As the above quote suggests, one of the ideas explored in How to Be Both is how important reality, and the perception of reality, appear to be. Later on in the novel, George is remembering a discussion she has with her mother in Italy, after they visit the Palazzo Schifanoia. Concerning frescoes, her mother asks her which came first, the picture underneath, which we may never see, or the picture on the surface that we are immediately confronted with? George says it would be the picture we see first. This then prompts her mother to question whether the picture underneath does not exist if we cannot see it. Interestingly, this conversation resonates with the whole of Smith’s dazzling novel. Can the past and present exist simultaneously? If history is past, can it not impact on the present? Can people be both male and female? Can people be both present and absent at the same time?

‘Can we never get to go beyond ourselves? her mother says. Never get to be more than ourselves? Will I ever, as far as you’re concerned, be allowed to be anything other than your mother?’.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.

These layers of duality overlap the two parts of the novel so that one half cannot be read without the other. Though, at the same time you cannot revel in the textual duality of the novel. After reading the version with Francescoa’s narrative first, I don’t think I could attempt reading it the other way around. I would need to completely forget Francesca’s story, which would be near impossible. As one review I read stated beautifully: once read, How to Be Both cannot be unread. Although Smith plays with traditional conventions of the novel form, we are ironically unable to read this book both ways. At least, that’s how I feel. Nevertheless, Ali Smith’s novel is an inventively refreshing read, questioning whether there is only ever one way to read a novel. It is one of the most enjoyable and astounding novels I have read in a long time – a well-deserved winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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