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Review: Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Ali Smith’s latest novel was being tipped for the Man Booker longlist 12 months before it came out on some book blogs, and within days of its release, the zeitgeist had it that this was definitely one for the shortlist and a strong contender to take top honours. And although this book won’t be for everyone, I think it may actually be worth all the hype.

There seems to be a strong theme of The Arts as Life running through literary fiction at the moment. Two of the best-regarded American novels of the past year, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, use visual art (painting) as the frame and reference point to tell quite different stories, while Richard Powers uses music to much the same effect in Orfeo. Ali Smith is singing from the same general songsheet in How to be Both, which is, at its heart, a story about observation – seeing, and being seen – where painting is again the device that enables and shapes the substance of the action.

Smith and her publishers employ an unusual technique in that How to be both has been published in two versions, one which presents a fictionalised account of a real Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, first, followed by the story of contemporary teenager, George; the other of which flips the order and gives George’s narrative first, followed by Francesco’s. It’s random which iteration you get (in the e-book, you get both) but it’s an interesting technique, because the order in which you read the stories will, I imagine, have a profound effect on how you absorb and make sense of the novel as a whole.

I read the book on my Kindle, and the e-book iteration presents Francesco’s narrative first, which delayed my engagement with the text considerably. While not going to the kind of lengths that Paul Kingsnorth did in The Wake (no late-medieval Italian here, thankfully), Smith has clearly made an effort to capture some of the historicity of the Renaissance, imbuing Francesco with the aspirations, preoccupations and worldview of the time.

Because this worldview, and the style it engenders, is quite distinct from modern sensibilities in important ways, connecting with Francesco is a slower, more nuanced process than the quick immersive bonding that I felt with the pedantic, grieving, spiky George (or “George-YA”, as her mother calls her after she insists on her full name).

Nonetheless, I’m glad I came to Francesco first. Smith’s continual, subtle, intelligent play with notions of gender and its performance are highlighted more completely in Francesco’s story, and I think I would have missed them, or paid them less mind, had I already been captive to George’s more compellingly modern tale. But it’s in Francesco that Smith does her best work in challenging both the idea of binaries in gender, but also the idea that the performance of gender is the thing itself. This is because Francesco, in Smith’s imagination, is assigned female and raised as a girl until her mother’s untimely death, but then, at her father’s suggestion, dresses and behaves as a man in order to have the art career that is the dearest desire of their heart.

Smith doesn’t get into whether Francesco identifies as male, per se – in the context of this story, what matters is that Francesco performs “man” in the way that it was understood in the Renaissance art world, for the purpose of being part of that world. In this, Smith is toying with the surmise that has often been advanced that there may have been, perhaps, many women in history who engaged in this kind of gender performance for the purposes of gaining access to power, careers or freedoms they would otherwise not have had.

Francescho puts on the mask of masculinity, but it’s always a thin, gauzy thing, penetrated many times by many acquaintances, masters and friends; the fact that the show goes on after each of these unveilings is a fascinating study of complicity and ambiguity in how maleness is conceived and presented within this context.

The linkage between Francesco’s story and George’s is based on George’s visit, with her mother and younger brother (the irresistibly drawn Henry) to see a newly-uncovered fresco by Francesco at the Duke of Borse’s summer pleasure villa just outside Ferrara’s city gates, the Palazzo Schifanoia. The artwork is real, and surmising from Smith’s loving, detailed, description, it seems to be something she has spent much time poring over and dreaming with. George and her mother’s fascination with the sly play of gender and class in the art is woven into Francesco’s tale, which is itself extrapolated from the known actual details of del Cossa’s life, especially his injured demand for better pay from the tight-fisted Duke and his escape from Ferrara to Bologna.

The focus and thrust of George’s story, though, is not the art, nor even her emerging relationship with Helena (“H”), her friend and later potential lover. It’s about the loss of George’s mother, the economist / activist Carol, who dies a few months before the action begins, a victim of a rare reaction to an antibiotic.

George’s processing of Carol’s absence rings completely true to me, and it’s a remarkable mixture of painfulness, anxiety, resilience and acceptance. Smith’s theme, “watching and being watched”, is threaded in here as well, with George’s steadfast belief, expressed to the politely sceptical school counsellor and the ambivalent H, that her mother was being surveilled because of her political / social activism before her death. This circles back on itself twice, with George’s own surveillance of the mysterious woman, Lisa Goliard, with whom her mother became entangled, and of course with the ghost of del Cossa’s observation of George herself.

It’s in the characters of George and Francesco that Smith really cements this book as the fine achievement that it is. Both are so authentic, so nuanced, so deeply realised, that they glow on the page and pull the story (which falters at times) along with them. Their entanglement with each other is born in echoing mother-loss, artistic sensibility, the dynamics of observation, and the performance of sexuality and gender. They are nothing alike, yet they are completely alike. Their worldviews are as far apart as oceans, but their experiences are mirrored. In the struggles of each, the struggles of the other are reflected and resolved. And thus it is that Smith’s positing of a psychological link that unites them across half a continent and five centuries makes sense, is plausible and satisfying, and makes this book a thoughtful and engaging read.