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

On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State