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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

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit