How To Be Both by Ali Smith

img_2248Hmmm…for all the hype, I’m not sure this is quite as good as everyone says it is. Paintings can lead to all sorts of extraordinary places in fiction: Russell Hoban took one look at the medieval painting depicting the legend of St Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral and conjoured Riddley Walker. How you get from church wall to post-apocalyptic quest written in phonetic English, only he knows. That’s talent for you. Ali Smith has taken a different route in How To Be Both. The book is split between two inner voices – the first half belongs to a grieving, modern English teenage girl called George; the second to an Italian Renaissance fresco painter called Francesco del Cosso. This was a concern. I had uncomfortable flashbacks of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi: I was sorry the first half of Dyer’s story was over, and feared that the second half would never end. Dyer’s experiment didn’t work and I don’t really think Smith’s does either. But both are wonderful writers: they are at least trying. Smith examines how we look at art, what it means to us, how much of our own life and prejudice we project onto it. What she does – brilliantly – is to imagine how del Cosso’s life reaches the point where we know anything about him. How does he get the impetus for writing a letter asking for more to his patron (the only evidence of his life)? In this it has some affinity with A Dead Man In Deptford – similar era, with similar preoccupations of artistic patronage, homosexuality and sudden death. Fun things for clever novelists, in other words. And while this is indeed clever, it isn’t a patch on The Accidental, Smith’s earlier novel. But then very little is. Apparently, copies of How To Be Both were printed with George’s story first (as in my edition) or Francesco’s, to be read in whichever order you fancy. Like Haruki Murakami’s similar gimmick with Norwegian Wood, this suggests a structural problem (the problem being there isn’t a structure at all). But there is some intersection between the two monologues and even when she seems about to, Smith doesn’t really let you down.


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