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A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 2 November 2014

How to be Both by Ali Smith

There is always a point in any novel by Ali Smith where it becomes so adorable and charming that you want to high-tail off to wherever Ali Smith is currently residing to give her a hug, tell her she’s awesome and follow her around like a lost little puppy for an entire day waiting for her to say something clever (which she will) and memorable (which she also will). I’m glad to say that How To Be Both didn’t disappoint in this area and reminded me, quite forcefully, why Ali Smith is one of the greatest writers of our generation. It is not just because of the adorableness of the book (which helps) but because she is incredibly clever, experimental and her novels are unlike any other. But just to prove how wonderful Smith is, read this little snippet (I read it to my daughter and she loved it):

“By the time she gets back upstairs Henry and H are engaged in a kind of verbal ping-pong.

Henry: As blind as?
H: Houses.
(Henry laughs)
Henry: As safe as?
H: A bell.
Henry: As bold as?
H: A cucumber.
(Henry rolls about on the floor laughing at the word cucumber.)
H: Okay. Switch!
Henry: Switch!
H: As keen as?
Henry: A cucumber.
H: As pleased as?
Henry: A cucumber.
H: As deaf as?
Henry: A cucumber.
H: You can’t just keep saying cucumber.
Henry: I can if I want.
H: Well, okay. Fair enough. But if you can, I can too.
Henry: Okay.
H: Cucumber.
Henry: Cucumber what?
H: I’m just playing it your way. Cucumber.
Henry: No, play it properly. As what as a what?
H: As cucumber as…a…cu-
Henry: Play it properly!
H: Likewise, Henry. Like plus wise.

When H goes home at eleven George literally feels it, the house becomes duller, as if all the light in it has stalled in the dim part that happens before a lightbulb has properly warmed up. The house becomes as blind as a house, as deaf as a house, as dry as a house, as hard as a house. George does all the things you’re meant to do before bed. She washes, she brushes her teeth, she takes off the clothes she’s been wearing in the daytime and puts on the clothes you’re meant to wear at night.”

How To Be Both is a novel split into two parts. The first part (I say the first part) is about George, a teenage girl whose mother has just died and is struggling to come to terms with it. She also looks after her young brother, Henry (of the extract above) and works around her father who has descended through grief into alcoholism. The second part (I say the second part) is about Francescho (Francescha), a Medieval Italian painter responsible for a fresco on the wall of a palace (the palace of not being bored) that George and her mother visited before her mother’s death, and over which George becomes slightly obsessive. In George’s era, little is known about the painter (presumed to be a man) who painted the frescos. In Francescho’s era it is shown that Francescho is, in fact, a girl who lives as though she is a man in order to pursue her painting.

I say these are the first parts and the second parts because depending on which version of the book you happen to buy or borrow, it may be one way around or the other. In the version I read George came first.

How To Be Both is an experimental novel, and there are a few core themes that flow through and structure the book. One, perhaps not surprisingly if you’re familiar with Smith’s oeuvre, is gender and it is notable that both key characters are girls and both are ‘both’ male and female. I think Smith is extremely adept at drawing out the nuanced duality of gender. George and Francescho are both male and female, though it is the character of Francescho which draws this most extremely. In her era she must live as a though a man if she is to follow through with her painting talent. It is one of the elements I love about Smith’s work, how she does not place her characters into genderised boxes, instead she shows a more true picture of gender – how people have attributes and those attributes are labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the idea that your genitalia demand that you behave in a certain way is a societal construct that doesn’t fit when you apply it to real people. In the case of Francescho, she is forced to live in this extreme construct so that she can pursue her art, and through this character we see how potentially toxic this idea can be.

A second key theme in the book is time. This is most explored by George who is struggling with the idea of how her mother can be both dead and alive in her mind. She thinks of herself as the George of before and the George of after, whilst still being the same George and still having very present and alive memories of the time before. Tied into this is the question of language: does the English language force us to think in terms of before and after because of the way in which we use tenses; does the existence of tenses in language reflect an innate concept of time, or does the presence of tense in language force a mindset into which time is partitioned. It is an interesting question, especially considering that there are cultures and languages which do not have this highly structured concept of time. The character George is a grammar pedant, constantly correcting the speech of other. This is quite endearing, yet also annoying, and an excellent way to explore the question of time and language.

The theme which struck me most forcefully about How To Be Both was one of watching, or observation, particularly when the object of observation does not know it is being observed. This is a heavy presence throughout the whole of the book, and one which starts with the cover which includes two pictures: one by Francescho del Cossa which is on the rear cover, and the other a photograph of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy walking along a street. Both pictures figure heavily in the story. There are so many instances in which this theme occurs, and it is perhaps a key theme of our current era in which the ability to control one’s image is increasingly difficult. In George’s case we see her first encounter with H arising from a trend of girls recording other girl’s peeing in the bathroom, then posting the results on YouTube. H intervenes and saves George from humiliation, and through this they become friends. It is not the first time I’ve encountered this type of bullying in a novel – this was one of the more disturbing elements from A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and perhaps reflects the kind of sexual bullying that happens increasingly to women (revenge porn, for example, the hacking and posting of nude selfies, Kate’s breast photographed from a million miles away, etc etc).

Similarly George becomes compelled to watch a particular item of porn, in which a very young girl figures, over and over. This element, too, feeds into the theme of time, as George explains here:

“She told him she was doing it in witness, by extension, of all the unfair and wrong things that happen to people all the time.
George, it’s good of you, her father said. I applaud the sentiment.
It’s not just sentiment, George said.
Honestly George, when I saw you out here watching something I was cheered, he said. I thought, good, Georgie’s back, she watching something on the iPad, she interested in things again. I was pleased. But sweet heart. It’s appalling, that stuff. You can’t watch that. And you have to remember, it’s not really meant for you. And I can’t even look at it. And anyway. That girl. I mean. It probably happened years ago.
That’s no reason not to do what I’m doing, George said.
She was probably very well paid for it, her father said.
George’s eyes widened. She snorted.
I can’t believe you just said that, she said. I can’t believe I’m even related to you.
And sex isn’t like that. Loving sex. Real sex. Sex between people who love each other, her father said.
Do you really think I’m that much of a moron? George said.
And you’ll drive yourself mad if you keep watching stuff like that, her father said. You’ll do damage to yourself.
Damage has already happened, George said.
George, her father said.
This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl. Do you still not understand?”

George’s mother, too, felt she was being watched. Her mother was involved in a subversive art project which used internet popups to send messages, and she believed she was being followed, watched, by someone from the government. Yet George’s mother expresses this as something good, the idea of being watched making her more real and more alive. This is the conundrum that Smith explores from many different angles. Sometimes it is good to be watched, to be seen. It can be a positive thing. Yet there is a tipping point when being watched becomes menacing and dangerous. How do you walk the line between the two? People want to be seen, but not to the point where being seen becomes a hazard. This is a line many many women have to walk every day. And it is a line that is used against them too. You wore a short skirt, therefore it is not rape. You dressed for the male gaze, etc etc. These are fallacies, yet they are presented daily as truths. Smith’s cleverness, here, is in shining a light on those fallacies.

I could go on and on and on about this book. It is clever and entertaining. I haven’t explained here how present, how real the characterisation is. One of Smith’s strengths is in capturing the essence of a person in a few words (much as Francescho captures the essence of whatever she is painting in a few strokes). There is much about art, love, desire, the nature of human grief and loss. It is an interesting idea that the reception of the book could change if the stories are swapped, and I’d like to read How To Be Both again, with Francescho’s story coming first to see how that alters the way I feel about the book.

How To Be Both receives an enraptured 10 out of 10 Biis. I’d recommend everyone reads it. It is strange how it feels quite lightweight, frivolous at times and yet it is so deep. That is the cleverness of Smith. And that’s why I’m off to find a train now and seek out where she lives…

(okay, not really. But it’d be interesting wouldn’t it?)