When the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize asked me if there was a book I would like to champion from the shortlist that I hadn’t read yet (or you know it would be The Bees) I instantly, and quite cheekily, asked them if I could read Ali Smith because I am a big fan of her work. I have actually been a big fan of her work since before this blog was born when I read The Accidental and loved it just as much as I was occasionally baffled by it. Since then I have loved Girl Meets Boy, The First Person & Other Stories, There but for the and Artful. Now with How to be both I think Ali Smith has encased everything I love about her writing in one book, though I am also aware that it won’t be a book for every reader out there…
How to be both is a clever novel in that is is made up of two narratives/novellas/stories which form a whole novel, yet can be read and have indeed been printed in either order creating a slightly different book. Before we get too involved in how that works, let me tell you more about the two stories. First up, well in my editon, is the tale of George whose mother has recently died and whose life and death along with the things she was interested in have become a kind of obsession with George whilst coping with the grief and loss of her mother, one being the art of an Italian 15th century fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa. The other story is the tale of the artist del Cossa who of little is known and indeed until a specific fresco and letter were discovered wasn’t a known artist at all. It may seem like the link between the stories is obvious however the more you read the more the narratives are connected, occasionally mirrored and interweaved.
But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
George sighs heavily. Her mother points across the way, to the castle wall. A bus goes past. Its whole back is an advert for something in which there’s a Madonna and child picture as if from the past, except the mother is showing the baby Jesus how to look something up on an iPad.
Now I left in the last paragraph of that quote because if you are worried that this novel might be too clever or maybe a little to conceptual it is honestly not. Yes Smith is an amazingly gifted and clever writer, yes she is also an author who is brimming with ideas and her novels can have an unusual concept to them, in no way is she a writer who alienates, comes across as pompous or likes the sound of her own voice or opinions. Her writing is as enjoyable as it is experimental and she has as much sense of humour as she has ideas, admittedly the first part of the Italian section made me do a ‘what?!?’ but I trusted her and read on more of that shortly. What I love about her writing the most is the way that she will play with words, flip them and their meanings about and show you just how blooming amazing this language we all have is.
There is also much more to love about her writing. Layers mainly, in fact layered is a very good word for Smith as she does this with themes in her novels, gender, beginnings, art, culture, stories, spirit & essence, death, grief and more are in this novel. Smith is clearly a people watcher. She has the ears for dialogue and the eyes for character. Any conversation you read in a Smith novel be they set now or be it set several centuries ago is exactly how people speak. I know this sounds really obvious because all authors write dialogue, yet even when that dialogue is good it isn’t as brimming and astute and layered with meaning as when Ali Smith does it, in particular (and this almost beats one of the best dinner party conversations in fiction ever in There but for the) there are conversations between teenage George and her mother that we know we have all had when we were being pedantic clever clogs and one scene with George and her father having to discuss a pornographic video with its undertone of two people who have become alien to one another since grief hit, is utterly brilliant.
The same brilliance with dialogue applies to Smith’s characters. George is a wonderful, wonderful character who I loved seeing the world from the angle of. Like in There but for the (sorry to mention it again, it remains my favourite Smith book and I loved this) in How to be both Smith uses a younger character to show us the reader how utterly bizarre we are as adult human beings. She does this with the way her mother uses language, yes her own mother, and she does this when she is thinking about death, about art, about pornography, all without it ever sounding precocious. I was utterly charmed by George and it may have been leaving George behind, and initially the very unusual way the start of the second section (in my version of the book) that made me a little hesitant and a little cranky initially when we went to 15th Century Italy.
Don’t get me wrong, once I had warmed up to and got used to the way del Cossa tells a tale I was into the swing of it. There were three particular highlights in this section firstly the wonderful and rompy tale of del Cossa’s rise to painting for the aristocracy, which takes us via a wonderful and vivid whore house, secondly her tale of friendship and finally, yet most incredibly of all, the way Smith writes about painting. You’d think creative types writing about other creative types would be easy, quite the opposite and some novels about artists or musicians can go horribly wrong (oh hello Richard Powers’ Orfeo) or come across as pretentious drivel. Not for Smith. I was worried I might get bored when she wrote about del Cossa painting or feel like it was a lecture, I was captivated.
It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even a imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and it told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.
I also think the Italian section is very integral to another thing Ali Smith likes to toy with and that is our assumptions. If there is one thing I have learnt in the case of an Ali Smith novel it is to have no preconceived ideas about it, other than it will be very good, and also to assume nothing. For those of you who have yet to read it I will say no more for fear of spoilers, for those of you who have read it you will know what I mean and we can talk about those and much more in the comments below – after all I promised this would be like a book group, this does mean there may be some spoilers in the comments, be warned. I did wonder how it would work if I had read the two parts the other way around and tried playing the ‘if I had read it that way’ game, I am wondering if too much would have been given away too soon. More to discuss below I feel?
I really liked How to be both. I think it takes all the best parts of her previous novel, mixes them up and produces something wonderful. Occasionally this does mean that How to be both will have a familiar feel to its predecessors in some way (I so wanted to call this post Artful: The Remix) yet it is also a completely original novel and concept too. As I said before, Smith is as enjoyable as she is experimental and long may she keep writing books like this and gaining a much deserved wider and wider readership. I think she could be one of the most interesting contemporary writers of our time whilst also being one of our most accessible, if you are prepared to put the work in and leave your reading inhibitions by the door. Marvellous!
So normally it is over to you and I ask if you have read the book and what you thought of it, plus ask you what else I should read of Ali Smith’s and indeed from the Bailey’s shortlist. I still want all that but I want a little bit more (and I feel I am worth it, ha) as I said this would be like a book group discussion so to get us all going I do want you to tell me what you thought, I have also asked a few questions in the first comment below… let’s get discussing!