In her 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel How to be both, Ali Smith twists two narratives, that of a troubled teenager in contemporary Britain and that of a 1460s Renaissance fresco painter, into a single dazzling story. A triumph of doubling, deception and discovery, How to be both considers the twin concepts of art and beauty alongside questions of justice, ‘moral conundrums’ and sexuality. Part love story, part historical fiction, and threaded with mystery, the novel is comprised of part One and part One, each foregrounded with a visual element (a surveillance camera, an artful pair of eyes) suggesting themes of surveillance and sight, ‘looking’—all themes Smith fans will have encountered in her earlier works. Form following content, this revolutionary novel was published in two versions, one with each part leading the thread.
Author of the novels Artful, There but for the, Free Love, Like, Hotel World, and The Accidental, and story collections Other stories and other stories, The whole story and other stories, and The First person and other stories, Ali Smith has long concerned herself with the role of art/the artist in culture. But in How to be both, what was once a secondary concern is front and center : the creation of art, and its radical and transformative power.
When sixteen-year-old George loses her ‘Economist Journalist Internet Guerilla Interventionist’ mother, the house comes down around George’s world: literally, the roof leak means dampness permeates her room, staining its walls. In a tale that plays with chronology (as do so many of Smith’s works), George recalls their family sojourn to Italy months prior to her mother’s death, to trace the fresco painting that will become the central focus of the second half (in this reader’s experience) of the novel. In the parallel story, five hundred and fifty years prior, fresco artist Francescho will paint his/her way into accidental prominence, the painted wall of the palace becoming the centre of a controversy, as the ‘pickpocket’ beneath her pushes for fair payment.
But a recounting of the rope-like threads of this novel hardly does justice to its forms of play and playfulness. Smith weaves her story across time and across space: the living mourn the dead, the dead witness and speak to the living, across hundreds of years. And across gender, too : ‘This boy is a girl./I knew it.’ (251)
Fans of Smith will find here much of what they love already (or resist) in her earlier novels: the catalyst who arrives unexpectedly and creates havoc, disturbing the equilibrium of the household : the mysterious ‘H’, who disrupts, if positively, George’s world; and the mysterious ‘Lisa Goliard’ (a mystery that never quite resolves), who likewise shook up George’s mother’s world. There is play with poetry, not the fractured sonnets of The Accidental, but verse in form across the page, bookending the historical section. Smith not only breaks forms, as usual in this novel, but actually makes forms. There are also the expected Smith cautionaries : about the (potential) costs of art as well as its necessity : ‘So always risk your skin, she said, and never fear losing it, cause it always does some good one way or another when the powers that be deign to take it off us’ (250).
But the strength of this book is less what Smith does with form (much as we Smith readers love these literary experiments), but what she does with content: both-ness remains the most interesting aspect of the book’s themes. ‘I made things look both close and distant,’ Francescho says (305). One by one, Smith takes the binaries : death/life; justice/injustice; male/female; sexual love/pornography; the living/the dead : and makes of them less a dialectic than a synthesis. And art, Smith seems to argue, is what makes these syntheses possible:
Alberti it is who teaches, too, how to build a body from nothing but bones : so that the process of drawing and painting outwits death and you draw, as he says, any animal by isolating each bone of the animal, and on to this adding muscle, and then clothing it all with its flesh : and this giving of muscle and flesh to bones is what in its essence the act of painting anything is. (343)
It is Francescho, in fact, in dialogue with Barto who brings the narrative full circle to George’s. Francescho, in the ritual of drinking water to remember and to forget, describes the jemmying off of old roof tiles like memories and that new ‘roofless’ state. Barto draws the analogy further:
The point? Barto said, The point is – obviously, Francescho, that moment, with all the tiles, I mean the memories, gone. That moment when you’re like before you were born. Just like newborn. Open to everything. Open to the weather. Everything new… Open like a brand-new not-yet-lived-in home, Barto said. Clean like a wall that’s been returned to what it was like before the painting.’ (333-334)
There are moments in the historical narrative – ‘just saying’ (196) or ‘no one … didn’t gave a toss’ (196) – when for this reader the historical frame shudders slightly. Is this Smith’s contemporary narrator doubling with her historical narrator? Smith’s own playful ‘implied narrator’ at work? Either way, the tiniest of flaws aside, Smith’s How to be both leaves us – in the best of her work, which this surely is – like Francescho, wide open, ‘open to everything.’
All references pertain to the 2014 Hamish Hamilton volume.
Alicia J Rouverol