Show Hide image

Art and its double: Frances Wilson on “How to Be Both” by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s new novel How to Be Both is dizzyingly good and so clever that it makes you want to dance.

How to Be Both is a novel novel, which is to say that it is both a novel and novel: it is composed, as Ali Smith’s fiction always is, of novelty and novelness. It is also packed with puns and possibilities and enough play to add a new perspective to the novel form. Perspective, as it happens, is one of her central themes. How to Be Both gives us an exuberant, rhapsodic perspective on a picture, or a set of pictures. It is about what happens when words and images are looked at from a particular angle. Or from two different angles.

The book is divided into two halves. Part one takes place in 2014 in Cambridge, where the central intelligence is George, a generous, sardonic 16-year-old girl mired in grief after the death of her freethinking and subversive mother, who thought she was being spied on. The previous summer, when she had been feeling depressed, George’s mother had taken her to Ferrara to see a Renaissance fresco on the wall of the Palazzo Schifanoia, or “the palace of not being bored”.

“It’s a friendly work of art,” she explains. “I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic, too . . . It’s a bit like you.” George sees a “giant comic strip”, made up of unicorns, cherubs, birds, babies and flowers; there are handsome workmen, floating lovers and musical instruments; a “truly shocked duck with a hunter’s fist round its neck”, laughing swans and woodland beasts that look like “rabbits, or hares, no, both”. “Art,” according to George’s mother, “makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.” George is fed up of art “always knowing best”. Absorbing the warmth of the life on the wall, her mother is “struck by lightening” – the burden of anxiety is lifted from her and, at the same time, she is illuminated.

Language, George’s mother explains, is a “living growing changing organism” and the word “lightening” might also describe the effect of Ali Smith’s prose. Her sentences tread lightly on the ground and impact on the reader like a hallucinogenic trip (there is a pun on trips later in the book, when George and her friend do a class presentation to show how tripping can mean rising up as well as falling over).

The artist is Francesco del Cossa, whose fresco was painted over and who soon disappeared from history. His work was only uncovered in the 19th century and little is known about him except that he demanded a pay rise from his patron for his masterpiece in the palazzo.

In her mourning, George searches for other pictures by Francesco del Cossa and finds a trippy image of a woman holding a flower that has eyes instead of petals. Bunking off school, she finds another of his paintings, Saint Vincent Ferrer, in the National Gallery. While George looks at him, St Vincent looks past her and into the distance. But from behind, she is being watched by the artist’s free-floating eyes.

The book’s second part begins with Francesco breaking through the divide between the living and the dead and spying on George. So now we see what George looks like through the eyes of a Renaissance court painter, except that the perspective is more complex than this because Francesco and George have the same voice. So is this George’s perspective on the artist’s perspective on George’s perspective, or the other way round?

Reviewers received two copies of How to Be Both and in the second copy, it is Francesco’s part that comes first. The first version subverts the second and because both are published, readers will come away with two different perspectives.

Francesco thinks that George is a boy and for George “Francescho”, as she calls the artist, is a girl, making her living by disguising herself in breeches. “Francescho”, who also lost her mother as a child, experiences memories that flicker into and out of the light. Watching George make a fresco on her bedroom wall using photographs of a house lined up to look like bricks, she recalls how her own painted figures broke free from “the wall that had made them and held them even from themselves”.

Rocks and stones are everywhere: Francescho’s father was a stonemason, George sees a therapist called Mrs Rock and her mother is now rubble in an urn. The world is made up of panels and barriers. When George falls in (or rather trips into) love with a girl called H, the experience is “like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded”.

How to Be Both is a novel of ideas in which the ideas break free and float like figures in the fresco. It’s dizzyingly good and so clever that it makes you want to dance. I’ll eat my hat if it doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize or the Folio Prize. 

How to Be Both is out now from Hamish Hamilton.

 

Now listen to the team discussing Ali Smith and “How to be both” on the NS podcast:

 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump