Monday, June 1, 2015

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith: Mindbending and Unforgettable

Photo by Antonio Olmos

The game starts before you read the first word of the book. How to be Both is made up of two sections, each labeled “Part I.” One of the sections centers on the 15th century painter, Francesco del Cossa; the other takes place in 2013 and its protagonist is Georgia, a teenaged English girl mourning the loss of her mother.

Half of all the printed copies of the book have the del Cossa part first; the other half have the George (as Georgia is called throughout) part first. Both have the same cover. It’s the luck of the draw as to which you read but the one that you read also changes your experience of the book.

My edition had the del Cossa section first and I found it to be the
stronger of the two. Laura Miller, who reviewed the book for The Guardian (9/13/14) had the George section first. She wrote:

While I do not doubt the two halves of How to be Both may be read in either order with satisfying results, once read, it’s impossible to know what it would be like to first encounter it in the alternate order. Is George’s portion of the novel, as it seems to me, the more profound one, or do I feel this only because as I reached the resolution of her story, the cumulative power of the whole book had taken effect?
Part I: The del Cossa section
Here’s what is known about the real Francesco del Cossa. As a young artist, he was commissioned by the Duke of Este to design and paint murals on a portion of the walls in the “Hall of Months” in the Duke’s new Palazzo Schifanoia (which translates roughly to “the place of not being bored”) in Ferrara, Italy. The hall was divided into twelve panels, one for each month, and the Duke was to be portrayed in each panel as just, generous, wise, etc. Del Cossa designed and painted frescoes for three months. The other panels, many of which were painted dry (as opposed to fresco) were designed by del Cossa’s older and better established rival, Cosimo Tura, and, perhaps, painted by Tura’s assistants.

Del Cossa wrote a letter to the Duke asking to be paid more for his work because, he believed, it was superior. The Duke scrawled a note, “Pay him what you pay the others,” on the bottom of the letter. Del Cossa, angry at his treatment, finished his work and left Ferrara for Bologna. He died at forty, probably of the plague, and was promptly forgotten.

The palazzo changed hands several times. The walls of the Hall of Months were whitewashed. The building became a barn and eventually a tobacco factory. Four hundred years after the murals were painted, some of the whitewash fell off a small section of a wall and workers saw parts of faces. The whitewash was removed, the murals restored and del Cossa’s work was incorrectly attributed to Cosimo Tura. It was not until the end of the 19th century that an art historian, going through archival material, discovered the letter which del Cossa had written to the Duke, asking to be paid what his work was worth. Only through this accident was del Cossa “discovered” and credited with the murals he painted. Few of his paintings have survived, one of which is in the National Gallery.

How To Be Both imagines the life of del Cossa. The twist is that he is imagined as female. Her father recognizes her talent and tells her that a female artist has, in their times, only two choices: go into a nunnery and paint pictures no one will ever see, or bind up her chest, don men’s clothes, and pass herself off as male. Del Cossa chooses the latter course. She is female but learns to be male. But this is not the only duality, the “being both,” that interests Smith.

A picture is not “live;” yet, as del Cossa says, sometimes it is more. It is “the thing that happens when the life of the picture itself steps beyond the frame:”

The great Alberti says that when we paint the dead, the dead man should be dead in every part of him all the way to the toe and finger nails, which are both living and dead at once: he says that when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive: painting, Alberti says, is a kind of opposite to death…

All the same it’s many a person who can go to a painting and see someone in it as if that person is as alive as daylight though in reality that person has not lived or breathed for hundreds of years.
* * *
…cause pictures can be both life and death at once and cross the border between the two.

This “Part I” begins with del Cossa’s spirit having been “ripped up” from its resting place, for reasons unknown to her, and sent to be near a fourteen year old girl who cannot see or hear her. When she first sees her, she initially mistakes her for a boy; the girl is sitting in a museum, staring at one of del Cossa’s own paintings.

The narrative then moves backward and forward, always in the first person, with recollections of del Cossa’s childhood, her nurturing mother who died young, her studies, her closest friend, Barto, her assistant (“the pickpocket”), the details of the murals she paints for the Duke and ultimately, her own death. She also tells us what she observes of the unknown fourteen year old girl.

Yet, even though the voice of del Cossa sounds, for the most part, completely real and credible, there are hints that something is not quite right. For example, the 15th century painter occasionally uses some very modern slang: “Just saying” and “cause” in place of “because.” This bit of a mental tickle is left unresolved.
Part I: The George Story
George’s mother is a recognized economic journalist with several degrees and a leader in the online “Subvert” campaign in which politically- subversive cartoons are posted anonymously. She is a wonderful, engaged, intelligent mother with a great sense of humor.

As the section opens, she is also dead from a severe reaction to antibiotic medications.

Four months before her death, she was flipping through an old art magazine, saw pictures of del Cossa’s restored murals and immediately decided she and her two children would go to Ferrara to see them. (Ali Smith has said in an article in The Guardian, 8/24/14, that this is exactly the way she first became aware of the murals.) A good part of this section is devoted to the trip to Ferrara.

Now, four months later, George is in deep mourning. As in the other Section I, the narrative jumps backward and forward in time. George has effectively taken her mother’s role in looking after her younger brother while her father drowns his own sorrows in booze. And here there is a different kind of duality: her mother is dead but still very “alive” in George’s memory. Both living and dead. Both “here” and gone.

She thinks back to their trip to Ferrara when she asked her mother, “What’s the point, what’s the point of it? What’s it got to do with anything? What’s the point of art?” and her mother replied:

Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.

George learns that one of del Cossa’s paintings is in the National Gallery and, because it provides a kind of connection to her mother, she visits the painting every day, spending hours simply looking at it.

Returning to school, she meets and becomes friendly with a new girl, Helena, called “H.” The two of them are paired up to do a project on empathy and decide to base it on del Cossa’s life, imagining the details of a life they cannot know in reality. That leads the reader to ask:

Is Francesco’s spirit sent to George by design, or is George imagining Francesco’s story to make sense of her own life? There’s a chance that both – the titular both – may be true. Smith has said that the duality of the novel, in which stories run over and alongside each other, is inspired by frescoes, which often bear layers of drawings underneath what’s visible. (Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic, 12/3/14)

The question is never expressly answered. The reader is left to consider the possibilities, to think about both.

Photo by David Sandison
Ali Smith is the author of four short story collections, a book of autobiographical writing, and two plays. She has written seven novels, many of which have won awards. How to be Both was short-listed for the Man Booker prize, the Bailey Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange), and the Folio Prize. It won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize and the 2014 Costa Novel Award.

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