Ali Smith’s sixth novel, How to Be Both is, to put it simply, extraordinary. It is written in two parts – two Part Ones, that is – which overlap and intertwine. One part brings to life Francescho Del Cossa, the real-life Italian Renaissance artist known for the frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. The other tells of a modern-day teenaged girl, George, and her struggle to deal with the death of her mother. In a discussion concerning frescoes and the hugely different underdrawings which so often exist beneath the visible painting, George’s mother poses the question, “Which came first?” This question brings us to what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of these two halves; their total interchangeability. Indeed, they are interchangeable to the point where half the copies of How to Be Both have been printed with one narrative first, while the order is reversed in the other half. Her question, then, is quite literal. This is intriguing on two levels: firstly, in the element of chance involved in the reader’s experience, and secondly in the impossibility of knowing how having instead encountered the alternate order would have altered the reader’s experience of the novel.
Already then, How to Be Both has proven to be a very appropriate title. However, it is apt not only on the level of structure, but also thematically. The novel is characterised by duality. It is fictitious as far as George’s narrative is concerned, yet it also encompasses a non-fictional dimension in that the life of a historic figure (Del Cossa) is interwoven into the text. Past and present, life and death, merge as Francescho rises from the grave to observe George. George, essentially, is considered a boy’s name. Francescho initially mistakes George for a boy. Francescho is born (in Smith’s account) a girl. Upon failing to determine whether the figures present in Francescho’s frescoes are male or female, George and her mother conclude that it is immaterial. Gender is undoubtedly also subject to duality.
The polarity of How to Be Both extends further still, to Smith’s writing style. George’s narrative, written in the third person, is relatively conventional. Contrastingly, Francescho’s narrative is written in a poetic, fragmented stream of consciousness. It is of particular importance to mention the second, especially where, as was the case with my copy, Francescho’s narrative happens to be printed first. Take, for example, the following extract from the opening pages:
look is that
blue sky the white drift
the blue through it
rising to darker blue
start with green blue underpaint
add indigo under lazzurrite mix in
lead white or ashes glaze with lapis
same old sky? earth? again?
home again home again
jiggety down through the up
like a seed off a tree with a wing
cause when the
roots on their way to the surface
break the surface they turn into stems
and the stems push up over themselves into stalks
and up at the end of the stalks
there are flowers that open for
all the world like
Stream of consciousness writing, at the best of times, is an acquired taste. When, as Smith’s writing is at points, it is so immensely abstract and grammatically anarchic as to recall the likes of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, it is quite frankly daunting. I’m ashamed to say that as I began to read How to Be Both, I feared I would not make it to the end. How very wrong I was! Smith writes with such great skill and confidence that the reader painlessly adapts to her style. That some rereading is necessary to fully appreciate her writing, I won’t deny – however, that it is absolutely worth the effort is undeniable. This is writing that rivals Virginia Woolf, and it is staggeringly good.