Things Underneath

How to Be Both

New York: Pantheon Books, 2014, 373 pp., $25.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Rebecca Meacham

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both opens with an epigraph by the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, the point-of-view character for half of the novel—and I can’t translate it.

In a bright box, I type: Et ricordare suplicando a quella che io sonto franchescho del cossa il quale a sollo fatto quili tri canpi verso lanticamara:

The box replies: “And remember to suplicando what I Francescho del Cossa discount which in fact only tri qu[i]li canpi towards lanticamara.”

The translation is a mystifying blend of languages. Italian and English. Both.

Of course.

Because How to Be Both is not a novel of easy answers. Its themes of love and loss, expression and repression, history and simultaneity, introspection and surveillance create an experience for readers at once revelatory and exploratory. Moreover, Ali Smith’s inventiveness exceeds the boundaries of language—or at least my paltry vocabulary and its six synonyms for “wow.”

In a word, How to Be Both is extraordinary. The novel has been honored with several literary awards, including the UK’s Goldsmiths Prize. According to judge Francis Spufford, the novel confirms “that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure… [It’s] a renewal of the writer’s compact with the reader to delight and to astonish.”

Innovation and pleasure. Delight and astonishment. Both.

Of course.

Pluck the book from a shelf and you’ll see how this novel literally is both. Your copy opens with a torrent of words rushing from the mind of a Renaissance painter-turned-ghost. Now, read these pages aloud to a friend and watch her puzzlement.

No, your friend will say, pointing to her own copy. This novel opens with a modern-day girl remembering a conversation with her deceased mother. The mother is dead.

No, you’ll chuckle. The painter is dead. His spirit attaches to a modern-day boy.

No, not a boy. A girl, your friend will insist. The girl is on a trip with her mother.

Dead painter and dead mother. Boy and girl. Historical and modern-day. Both.

Of Course.

Indeed, there are two editions of How to Be Both. Each edition includes two self-contained stories connected by common threads. One edition begins with the story of the Renaissance painter del Cossa, whose charming voice chronicles the painter’s experiences as its spirit tries to understand its sudden appearance in the life of a teenage boy. The other edition begins with the story of George, a British teenage girl (mistaken by del Cossa for a boy) by turns bitter and vulnerable, stuck in the past yet immobilized by the present, grieving the loss of her wise and candid mother.

Such packaging leads to two wholly different reading experiences. Begin with George, the teenage girl, and your path through the novel offers a fairly clear sense of event and consequence. While working through the “three, five, or seven stages of mourning,” George befriends a classmate, and for a school project, the two Google the work of del Cossa— a favorite of George’s mother. George is a creature of modern Cambridge, England, with iPads, text messages, and parents bewildered by the internet’s capacity to inform and traumatize their children.

Book-smart but naïve about relationships, George sifts through memories of her mother and observations about her father and younger brother, and questions about the story she’d assumed they’d created together. Smith masterfully conveys the profound dislocation of bereavement:

How can it be that there’s an advert on TV with dancing bananas unpeeling themselves in it and teabags doing a dance, and her mother will never see that advert? How can the world be this vulgar?

How can that advert exist and her mother not exist in the world?

She didn’t say it out loud, though, because there wasn’t a point.

It isn’t about saying.

It is about the hole which will form in the roof through which the cold will intensify and after which the structure of the house will begin to shift, like it ought, and through which George will be able to lie every night in bed watching the black sky.

It is last August. Her mother is at the dining room table reading out loud off the internet.

Meteor watchers are in luck tonight, her mother is saying.

What her mother is saying (“said,” George revises) comprises much of George’s story. In memories, she corrects her mother’s grammar, alternately sniping at and delighting in her mother’s reactions. On a trip, George and her mother view del Cossa’s frescos in Ferrara, Italy, where George marvels at the

layers. Things happen right at the front of pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind that, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.

Separately and connectedly. Happening and happened. Both.

Of course.

“I made things look both close and distant,” says del Cossa, narrating the creation of the work in the 1400s. Should your edition of the novel open with del Cossa’s story, as mine did, your path through the novel is less plotted, more playful and earthy— this is a dead great artist, after all. In del Cossa’s story, we’re along for the ride, as is the painter’s ghost, who is dragged by a boy from a museum “like one foot’s caught in a saddle of a horse,” into a world full of people carrying “these votives the size of a hand…staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons.”

Launched into the modern world, del Cossa tries to interpret human behavior— including the boy’s despair:

This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow knows a door he can’t pass through and what it tells me just to be near him is something akin to when you find the husk of a ladybird that has been trapped, killed and eaten by a spider, and what you thought on first sight was a charming thing, a colourful creature of the world going about its ways, is in reality a husk hollowed out and proof of the brutal leavings of life.

Poor boy.

However, the boy is actually a girl—“I knew it,” the painter says. Likewise, Smith’s del Cossa is really a woman, although the author avoids obvious cues; del Cossa’s identity generates tensions, but that’s not the point of the story. Instead, as del Cossa’s ghost follows the teenaged girl through a perplexing series of mundane actions, it reflects upon a fifteenth-century life full of family, friendship, and artistic rivalry. Echoing George’s story, there’s a wise and candid mother who dies too soon—but not before engaging her child’s intellect. When a seed dropped into a puddle of horse piss creates a ring of ripples, del Cossa’s mother says:

It’ll never stop going or growing wider and wider, the ring you saw. You were lucky to see it at all. Cause when it got to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you? No? But it did, you’re inside it now. I am too. We both are. And the yard. And the brickpiles…. And imagine it circling the fields and the farms we can’t see from here. And the towns beyond those fields and farms all the way to the sea. And across the sea. The ring you saw in the water’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go beyond that, too. Nothing can stop it.

At times, Del Cossa’s voice seems similarly unstoppable, but it also winks with puns and subtle jokes. This is a painter’s world, drawn in potent colors, where “art and love are a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding.” Del Cossa’s voice always subverts the established order and authority. In giant frescos, feminine boys loom large; royal courtiers are reduced “army of babies”; and the word “Justice” is blackened, and then painted over— a message for a corrupt boss, that will reveal itself over time.

Smith has said that her novel was inspired by the layers of a fresco: “Every great narrative is at least two narratives, if not more—the thing that is on the surface and then the things underneath which are invisible.” While each story here is a discrete pleasure, together the narratives of George and del Cossa create another layer of story. The ripples connecting del Cossa’s town to field to farm reverberate through George’s history. George’s interest in del Cossa inspires her to solve a mystery. Together, the stories of George and del Cossa engage in new dialogue and invite us to join in.

To paraphrase George’s mother, this novel is a work of art “so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art.”

Warm and artful. Of course, Smith’s novel shows us how to be both.

As well as how to be more.

Rebecca Meacham is the author of the award-winning story collections Let’s Do (2004) and Morbid Curiosities (2013). She directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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