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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.

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

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism