The lives of a grief-stricken girl and a long-dead painter intersect in Ali Smith’s new novel, a 2014 Man Booker finalist.
In her new book, How To Be Both, Ali Smith tackles a great deal thoughtfully and persuasively: how to be everywhere and everything, simultaneously — present and absent, now and then, dead and alive, female and male — as she tells the tales of two protagonists, a 15th-century painter and a 21st-century girl.
In keeping with the theme of duality, two versions of the book exist, which switch the narratives. In one, we start with the modern timeline, followed by the historical; in the other, the reverse.
In my copy, we begin with the modern.
Sixteen-year-old George — sharp, with a tart teenage tongue — is overwhelmed with sorrow. Her mother died recently, and George is convinced she was being spied on and that her death was not natural. Despite her father’s insistence that George’s theories are a coping mechanism, George won’t be discouraged. It doesn’t help that her father himself has resorted to alcohol as a way of grappling with his own grief.
George’s days have fallen into an uneasy routine: seeing her young brother off to school in the mornings and ensuring her father gets to bed safely after he stumbles home drunk in the evenings. In between, George skips school and visits an art gallery, staring endlessly at a painting by the artist her mother admired. One day, George happens to see the woman she believes was trailing her mother, and the watcher becomes the watched.
Suddenly, Renaissance artist Francescho del Cosso slides into the story to observe George and the woman and assume the narrative. Dead for centuries, Francescho’s consciousness, perhaps aroused by George‘s intense emotions and intent scrutiny, has somehow made its way to the gallery.
We trip back in time to learn Francescho’s story and how she became an artist — for she is not a man, but a woman, and, as the layers of her life are peeled back, further secrets are revealed. Similarly, her paintings contain all manner of intrigue and disguise. Francescho’s story illustrates how little we can truly know of history, how much is hidden beneath the surface of official texts and art, and how even those we think we know intimately might be concealing a great deal.
In George’s half of the novel, Smith’s narrative leaps back and forth effortlessly through time as George ponders what has happened and is happening in her life. The effect is one that brilliantly captures how the mind works: moving about from now to yesterday to tomorrow, both remembering and anticipating.
In Francescho’s half, the story also darts back and forth in time as she recalls her life and watches George, wondering what this person is doing with the paintings she carries about on the “tablet” she always has. But the more important leaps are those between public and private personas: Francescho as male painter and her true female identity. Smith’s commentary here is on the disparities and similarities between the two personas, what’s sacrificed to maintain the facade, and, more generally, the richness and confusion of human sexuality, what we choose to reveal and conceal to carry out our lives, as well as what we truly see when we look at others and at the world around us.
Smith writes that Francescho has learned,
“...how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it....”
She makes reference to “crossed-letter” writing:
“Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.”
I wonder if Smith would have liked the book to have been printed in that form, with the stories of Francescho and George overlaying one another, leaving them readable, yet unknowable, as all lives ultimately are.
The ending of the novel is printed on the pages of the book in such a way that it trails off; the story, too, feels as though it trails off, becoming lost in time and space. But, perhaps, that was the intention. Because, after all, isn’t that how all endings leave us feeling? Lost?