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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.

Saint Lucy by Francesco del Cossa.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

How to Be Both 
Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 372pp, £16.99

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. 

Frances Wilson’s books include “How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)