The San Francisco Chronicle
If you were to watch an artist paint a fresco, you would learn that it begins with a drawing. Wet plaster is laid on a wall — fresco in Italian literally means “cool, fresh” — and then the lines over that, the picture is formed, and then the color is mixed and added to the surface, all before the plaster dries. A mural emerges, something new, like the first drawing but also completely like itself. In the end, both are present, but only one is seen.
Ali Smith’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel, “How to Be Both,” is preoccupied with the idea of simultaneity. Most obviously because Smith has literally published two versions of the same novel: You can read Part One beginning with George (short for Georgia), a 16-year-old girl in modern-day Cambridge, England, or you can begin with Part One, the story of Francesco del Cossa, a 15th century Italian fresco painter who finds himself in a purgatory-like state following around a young boy he eventually realizes is a young girl, George.
I began with George. She is a teenager obsessed with language and structure. Past and present. Always correcting her mother when she misuses grammar, and correcting herself when she speaks of the past as if it were the present and realizes again that her mother, who we quickly understand has died, is a “was.” “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.”
The transitions are swift and the structure is fluid, telling a story and then changing the way we’ve just read it with phrases like: “But none of the above has happened. Not yet, anyway.” Because of the novel’s shifting nature, we know George’s mother as both alive and dead. When we meet her, she has decided to take George and her younger brother, Henry, to Italy to see the three panels done by the mostly unheard-of artist Del Cossa in the frescoed Room of the Months of the Palazzo Schifanoia. “The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first. But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all?”
We also know Del Cossa as both alive and dead. We meet him as a child in Renaissance Italy, as a painter who masters the rendition of the human form by paying girls in brothels, as a commissioned artist who feels he isn’t getting the recognition he deserves and asks for more. He is also, in death, the empathetic observer to George’s life — “This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow.” The idea of seeing and being seen is constant. George sets out on a task to daily visit one of Del Cossa’s paintings in a London gallery to observe how many people stop to look at it.
Del Cossa watches George and becomes a witness to her sadness and loss. The passages about their mysterious relationship are the most captivating sections of the novel:
“I am enjoying some of the ways of this purgatorium now: one of its strangest is how its people dance by themselves in empty and music-less rooms and they do it by filling their ears with little blocks and swaying about to a silence. … I’ve come to like this girl who will so solemnly dance with herself.”
Because you will have to choose one, your experience of the novel will be different depending on which story you start with. But either way, the revelations and conclusions will be the same. “How to Be Both” indeed works both ways, demonstrating not only the power of art itself but also the mastery of Smith’s prose. In Del Cossa’s words, “The life of painting and making is a matter of double knowledge so that your own hands will reveal a world to you to which your mind’s eye, your conscious eye, is often blind.”
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