Monday, 29 September 2014

How To Be Both, by Ali Smith

How To Be Both
A brilliantly structured dual narrative that disregards how books are supposed to to work and does its own thing. How To Be Both is two distinct but connected stories, one wound around the other and spanning hundreds of years. Which comes first depends on the copy that a reader picks up at random. There are two part ones and a bit of free verse thrown in, which gives it a strange, dreamy quality, a poetic transformation that blends one story's end into the other's beginning.

My copy started with troubled, teenaged George and her struggle to cope with the recent death of her mother. There's a grief stricken chaos to the beginning of George's narrative as she recounts her recent experiences in Italy with her mother. She describes a spur of the moment trip to look at some frescoes, forgetting at times to speak of her mother in the past tense and berating herself for it. She recalls their conversations faithfully, but in patches and with lots of revisions and transgressions. George comes across as fiercely intelligent, argumentative and pedantic and hopelessly lost. Left with her younger brother and emotionally absent father, she struggles to make sense of the world that doesn't have her mum in it, unsure how somebody so loved and so real can simply cease to exist. Her narrative follows her counselling with the gently comedic Mrs Rock, her relationship with her friend H, who moves to Holland and her brief foray into stalking.

Next comes the story of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. Master artist and woefully underpaid contributor to the 'Room of the Months' in the Ferrara Palazzo in Italy. Franceso has a completely different voice, strangely chipper for someone dead over 400 years, and spends his narrative switching between his life in Renaissance Italy and being confused about the situation he finds himself in now. Namely being roused for no apparent reason into the modern day, apparently bound to a stranger in a room exhibiting one of his paintings and a whole host by one of  his contemporaries. I loved how annoyed Francesco was by the fact that Cosmo had weathered history better than himself, more of Cosmo's work remains. I also liked the little anachronistic verbal tics that Francesco had- "just saying" repeats frequently. I liked the mischief of it and the suggestion that art, lifestyles and habits might change, but people are all the same underneath.

Smith asks but never really answers a lot of questions about art and its importance. How art affects people differently, the strength of connection that can (rarely, but still) occur between a person and an image from centuries ago and how alien this connection can seem to others. It makes the reader think of the legacy of the creative, the duty of some to tell stories to pass on, and the duty of others to understand them later. The idea of the 'captured image' recurs regularly. Does capturing a moment in time mean that the moment lives forever? Does the artist? Franceso certainly seems to some extent to live through his art, and does reliving through memory keep something alive? In this book art is all mixed up with memory, representation and recollection- it's difficult to keep them separate really. I think this mutability is a bit of a recurring theme...

As is duality, the 'Both' of the title, which is as close to a key to the narrative as it's possible to get. The dead co-exist with the living, gender and sexuality are fairly flexible and the two halves of the story overlap, collide and entwine in ways that sometimes reveal, sometimes confuse, but it's always done in a style that is both poetic and mysterious.

I liked how fluid the novel made things seem. Things that we think of as being definitive. I liked how by binding her chest and living as a man, Francesco made any notion of gender quite irrelevant. I've been inconsistent with personal pronouns myself...George and her mother, when studying the Frescos in the Ferrara Plazzo struggle to tell the genders of most of the figures. They decide in the end that it probably doesn’t even matter. Francesco mistakes George for a boy at first sight, unaware that despite using a boy's name she is in fact female.  Death too seems a lot more flexible in this novel. We know Francesco del Cossa is dead- he knows it too- but he struggles to gain any certainty about it, as he never remembers a death. But here he is, for unknown reasons, attached to the boy in the art gallery, the Palace of Pictures as Franceso calls it.

It's like its two novels individually, but reading them together creates a third. It is genuinely unlike anything else I have ever read. I loved the complexity of it, the twinned stories, and I wonder if reading it the other way around would have changed how I lived the narrative. People and places are kept alive through stories, words or pictures, and I wonder how a different setting and a different narrator at the start might have changed my perspective. Thoroughly recommend to readers wanting a change or a challenge.

No comments:

Post a Comment