Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

"How to be both" by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2014)

The book is in 2 parts, some copies having the parts in one order, some in the other. The 2 stories could have been interleaved, but they're short enough to be presented sequentially. In one story (set in 15th century Italy) a girl with artistic talent is brought up by her widower father. She pretends all her life to be male in order to get work. She likes girls. Her best friend's a rich boy. She studies art carefully, quoting the masters. She's good at it. She likes trompe l’oeil effects. She has to redo part of her best work for political reasons.

In the other story the mother of George, a 16 y.o. girl, has recently died in Addenbrooke's, Cambridge (the nearby DNA sculpture and cycle path are mentioned, providing an excuse to mention another neglected female, Rosalind Franklin). She has therapy sessions at school with Mrs Rock (yes, better than a hard place). She's verbally fluent, recalling saying this to her mother - "Blah ... You're pretending you're being cool about it now because online interventionism was once perceived for about three months several years ago to be cool ... but really you're just as paranoid as everybody else over forty ... all sackcloth and ashes and stuck in the past, hitting your chests with a scourge and ringing your little bells, unclean! Unclean! Disempowerment by information!" (p.228). She remembers going to Ferrara with her mother and younger brother Henry to see the frescos mentioned in the other part. The frescos had been hidden for centuries. The best of them were by an artist only known of because a letter had been discovered from the artist asking the patron for more money.

George is befriended by Helena Fisker (H), an artistic, rebellious schoolfriend with lesbian tendencies. Like George's mother, H mixes politics and art. Like many Smith characters, H plays "a kind of verbal ping-pong" (p.273). As a project they think about imagining what the fresco artist might do in the contemporary world. H has to leave the country but they stay in touch. George regularly, dutifully watches some online porn set in a yurt. At the end she tracks the woman who might have been monitoring her mother for the secret service. The woman befriended her mother who enjoyed the attention, describing her as "repressed and respectable and anarchic and rude and unexpected, she was trivial and wild both at once, like a bad girl from school" (p.305), which could describe a number of this author's beloved characters. George wonders about the connection between the 2 older women

Perhaps somewhere in all of this if you look there's a proof of love.
This thought will make George furious.
At the same time it will fill her with pride at her mother, right all along. Most of all she will wonder at her mother's sheer talent.
The maze of the minotaur is one thing. The ability to maze the minotaur back is another thing altogether.
High five.
Consider for a moment this moral conundrum. Imagine it. You're an artist.
Sitting on the wall opposite, George will get her phone out. She will take a picture.

which sounds more like a big, summarising finish than the end of the other part does ("minotaur" has earlier been confused with "monitor"; the trail has been backtracked). There are coincidences between the 2 stories, both large and small scale - Henry is playing Injustice on the iPad; the fresco depicts Justice. The characters gets glimpses of the other world. Whenever there's a chance to dwell on the idea of "both" it's taken. Mainly it's to do with female/male, present/past.

I read the 15th century part first. My problem is that there are tedious passages - e.g. about the missing ring (p.16). I needed a break from the familiar linguistic quirks of the familiar character. Just saying. MJ Nicholls on "Good Reads" says it better than I (though the halves were the other way round for him) -

the first section is quintessential Smith with its precocious teenage protagonist and her tireless obsession with words (these recurring characters are sentimental love-affairs with one’s formative time discovering language and its possibilities), while the second part is one of her riskiest experiments with style, voice, (mild) typography, wearing its Christine Brooke-Rose influence with pride, and for this reader . . . seems to fall facewards. ... the rambling narration of a 15thC painter that splices epithets about art and painting between various tortured plot strands, written in frustrating run-on sentences in a semi-Italian accent, is ballsy and indulgent. The meandering aspect of the second tale and its seemingly slapdash effect impeded my fun, despite the isolated moments of quotable and perfect thought-making that leap out from the sprightly pages (p.189-190)

A 15th century whore appears in a fragment that could have come from any Smith book - "First time? she said unbuttoning her front. I'll take care. I promise. Don't be scared. Let me. Of you." (p.78). The contemporary section isn't free of longeurs either. It takes a while for the mother's death to sink in -

  • This conversation is happening last May, when George's mother is still alive, obviously. She's been dead since September. Now it's January, to be more precise it's just past midnight on New Year's Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George's mother died.
    George's father is out. It is better than him being home, standing maudlin in the kitchen or going round the house switching things off and on. Henry is asleep. She just went in and checked in him; he was dead to the world, though not as dead as the word dead literally means when it means, you know, dead.
    This will be the first year her mother hasn't been alive since the year her mother was born. That is so obvious that it is stupid even to think it and yet so terrible that you can't not think it. Both at once.
  • Her mother doesn't say
    Her mother said.
    Because if things really did happen simultaneously it'd be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable. Because it's New Year, not May, and it's England not Italy
  • Every day before work George's mother, when she was alive (because she can't exactly do it now being, you know, dead) (p.207)

George's voice is being channeled through the narrator. Neither, alone, would use these words. I don't know whether the proportions of the mix are always right.

I've written parallel texts, and in Art and narration, etc I've used Art. I'm happy with Formalist prose. I feel I should like this book more than I do. My feelings might be to do with personal preferences re proportions. There's too much character-transcending wordplay for my liking and some plot coincidences seem too gratuitous (as if she's being paid for each link she can squeeze in).

Other reviews

  • Patrick Flanery (Telegraph) (One might reasonably argue that Ali Smith is among Virginia Woolf’s most gifted inheritors. Attentive to Woolf’s admonition that “one must be woman-manly or man-womanly”, Smith’s writing is alive to the power of empathy as much as it is conscious of the importance of form.)
  • Holly Williams (Independent) (Ali Smith’s writing often disrupts forms in a joyous, mind-expanding fashion, and in How to Be Both, she mischievously remodels the novel with both brazen ambition and sneaky subtly ... Even the humble wall may become totemic; references build up, brick-by-brick. Francescho is the child of a brickmaker; her art was largely on walls. George’s grief is a wall; she is a wall “against which other things impact without her permission”; she sits on a wall to stalk her mother’s spy/lover. But finally her walls, too, are broken down – by art, by love, by laughter. )
  • Sophie Gilbert (Atlantic) (The book is also full of hints about walls as barriers and enablers: Francescho paints on walls, her father builds them, and George crafts them out of photographs she takes, with each image becoming a brick in the final construction. Perhaps, Smith seems to suggest, every circumstance or obstacle can be subverted and become its opposite at the same time.)
  • Jan Dalley (Financial Times) (It is risky to base a novel around a work of art – it has been done very often, and there’s a kind of aesthetic piggy-backing that can feel like cheating. Not to mention the pervading whiff of “research”. For a writer, it can be perilous to have a super-perceptive adolescent as your primary narrator – that way cutesiness lies – yet Smith gives herself two of them. And the broken-backed structure of a novel in two halves, their timeframes separated by centuries, is again over-familiar, and courts the risk that readers will spend the second half of the book picking up on clever parallels, rather like a sixth-form English class. Undaunted, in her latest book Smith walks boldly into each of these danger areas, but skilfully makes the territory her own, skirting every pitfall and adding so much unexpected richness that we forgive the occasional stumble into the expected.)
  • Ron Charles (Washington Post) (This sounds like a novel freighted with postmodern gimmicks, but Smith knows how to be both fantastically complex and incredibly touching. Just as Francescho’s story is laced with insights about the nature and power of painting, George’s story offers its own tender exploration of the baffling and clarifying power of grief)
  • Lia Mills (Stinging Fly) (Smith’s stories often feature wild-card characters whose unexpected and usually inexplicable actions disrupt the previously stable but often stagnant, unhappy worlds of the other characters. ... A preoccupation with surveillance is familiar territory to Smith’s readers ... The links between 'Artful' and 'How to be both' are particularly strong: bereavement and a dusty ghost; discussions of art, time and form; a pastiche of quotes and cultural references; gender disruption; word play; the value of attention and close reading)

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