How to Be Both, the sixth novel by the Scottish writer Ali Smith, is an astounding work of art, so exquisite in its composition that reading it feels like staring into a Decadent painting, bound and endless all at once. This feeling is both the product of the book’s composition and simultaneously its silky essence. Depending on the version the reader has in her hands, she will start, either as I did, with the chatty ghost of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa (1435/6–1477/8), landed back on earth in the winter of 2014 in a room with 16-year-old George, whose mother has just died, or with George a few months previous, driving in Ferrara, Italy, with her mother and brother to see del Cossa’s greatest work. The book is about the duality of sexuality and of existence in general, a theme reinforced by the publisher’s decision to print two versions, reversing the order of the two interrelated but distinct parts. Most profoundly, How to Be Both depicts the power of art to produce within art maker and art observer alike capacities we don’t always realize are already there.
“Is there spring in purgatorium?,” purrs del Cossa’s ghost while standing in the place he has landed, room 55 of the National Gallery in London, where his painting Saint Vincent Ferrer hangs. A boy stands before the painting; Francesco can tell that the boy, really the girl George, “faces a door he can’t pass through.”
Francesco is himself confused because he has no memory of death. All he knows is that he’s in a room with a painting he made at the very end of his life. In the painting, Saint Vincent’s foot appears to violate the picture plane, a prod that unleashes memories of his formative artistic years, when he studied the work of the great painters who had also come to Ferrara to apply frescos to the castle walls. With Francesco recalling the magic of the early Renaissance, Smith, too, breaks through. Here she is on “Master Piero” (della Francesca),
from looking at whose works I learned
the open mouths of horses,
the rise of light in landscape,
the serious nature of lightness,
and how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it
George, the reader is to discover, will be “up-rising” through the narrative skin of Francesco, and vice versa. But first, as we learn through the artist’s rush of memory, Francesco must push his way out of the body of a small girl.
There’s no historical indication that Francesco del Cossa was actually a woman disguised as a man, but then as George and her friend H realize, while considering a class project on the painter in the book’s other part, “there’s so little known about him … they can make a great deal of it up and not be marked wrong because nobody will know either way.”
Francesco’s gender transformation occurs at her father’s urging after the death of her mother. For days, the girl has refused to wear anything but the mother’s baggy clothes; finally her father coaxes her out of that shell by offering instruction and apprenticeship in art. The girl is a natural. He hands her boys’ clothes and from then on as she grows into adolescence, Francesco binds her chest and worries about what might happen if she goes skinny-dipping with friends. She learns to be both.
George’s ambivalence is critical to the book’s success.
The novel is indeed unceasingly clever. The stories and characters, predicaments and thoughts in one part of the book kiss the stories and characters, predicaments and thoughts in the other. Through the tender, quiet, playful, sidelong kissing of past to present, present to past, Smith transforms a thematic novel into a work of the heart. Some kissing: both Francesco and George are females with male names. Just as the death of Francesco’s mother triggers metamorphosis, so does the death of George’s mother, Carol, a few months before the start of her story in the novel’s second (or first) part. Like Francesco, George converts the pain of grief into art. For both of them, art making triggers sexual desire and desire, in turn, feeds the art.
Smith plays with objects—a brick wall, for example—and words. Carol’s obituary in the Independent notes that she was a “renaissance woman”; meanwhile poor Renaissance Francesco has been mostly lost to history and never receives an obituary. Historians aren’t even sure of the year of his death (or his birth, for that matter). Francesco’s father is a builder of brick walls, whose materiality is integral to Francesco’s art; George assembles a wall of photos of her mother that she has cut to look like bricks. In a single ecstatic moment, this paper brick wall will break apart, opening, finally, poor George’s grieving heart. The walls, the words, are learning to be both.
Francesco, in the book’s first part (or second, depending), visits a brothel with her friend Barto. Francesco manages to avoid sex—she offers to paint pictures of the prostitutes instead—until dark Isotta, realizing the truth, seduces her. “The fear that went through me then when she did this,” says Francesco,
and I knew that any second she’d know me truly was 100 times stronger than the feeling released by the kiss, and both were the strongest things I’d felt in all my years alive.
Francesco’s awakening reaches forward to George, equally confused and untouched, lying on the floor of her mother’s study a few month’s after Carol’s death. School is out. H—a brave immigrant girl named Hilary, dark as Isotta, who has recently befriended George—lies next to her on the floor.
I have this need, H is saying.
What need? George says.
To be more, H says.
More what? George says.
Well, H says and her voice sounds strangely altered. More.
Oh, George says.
I think I might be, by nature, H says, a bit more hands-on than hypothetical.
Then one of her hands reaches and takes one of George’s hands.
The hand doesn’t just take George’s hand, it interlaces its fingers with it.
This is the point at which all the words drain out of the part of George’s brain where the words are kept.
A few times, Smith exchanges all this subtlety for heavy-handedness. Francesco makes too-cute off-hand comments about contemporary life—“they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers.” George’s mother Carol asks ponderous, explicitly thematic questions like “Can we never get to go beyond ourselves?” In these moments, the reader may groan along with George.
But most of the time Smith uses the book’s innate cleverness as an expressive tool, suggesting to the reader the ecstasy that an artist or writer can experience through interpretation and invention. Transforming the historical Francesco and mirroring the painter’s life in the shy and grieving George is a divine act of creation, a power the reader feels when George passes through the metaphorical door. “It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things,” Francesco reminds us.
Less than a year before she dies, Carol takes George and her brother, Henry, to the medieval town of Ferrara, southwest of Venice. There, in the “palace of not being bored,” Carol, a dogmatic leftist and guerilla artist, excitedly shows George and Henry Francesco’s most famous work, a phantasmagoric fresco meant to celebrate the local duke (Google it, as George and H do). The fresco rouses Carol, who freely interprets the work, but George, defiantly bored and frustrated with her mother’s endless analysis, can’t see the art. She doesn’t know, until her reaction to her mother’s death, that she should want to.
George’s ambivalence is critical to the book’s success. Despite the explicitness of the novel’s themes, Smith doesn’t set out to correct George’s misery through Francesco’s radiant art. Rather, she posits the chance that Francesco’s pigments will somehow seep through George’s confused teenaged consciousness. Hoping to confront one of her mother’s ghosts, George stands in the National Gallery’s room 55 day after day in front of Francesco’s Saint Vincent, with its “old man Christ,” and its glass balls and whole and broken landscape. “Both states are beautiful,” she will realize. She is just beginning to be able to see the world that’s coming for her. At 16, she is child and adult, both.
While observing George, the invisible Francesco meditates on the artist’s skill. “Art and love are a matter of mouths open in cinnabar,” he says, “of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding, of understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other.” He’s there in the National Gallery with George, the author makes us see, while at the same time he speaks from another age. Smith tells us that the past and future both color the present, and that the present frames and allows us to interpret the past. Smith—alchemist, painter, mixer of tones—softly rubs them together, ultimately breaching the standard picture plane. It’s the reader’s joy to watch her work.