‘How To Be Both’ by Ali Smith (2014) – 372 pages Grade: A
‘How To Be Both’ is a novel that is divided into two equal parts. One part follows the Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. The other part is about a 16 year old girl living in modern England named George who hates the song ‘Georgy Girl’ for which she was named (How many English girls got stuck with that name?). Somehow Ali Smith has fit their two stories into this one playful novel.
George’s 52 year old mother has died recently.
“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 not think of it.”
George’s mother is (was?) what I would call an art subversive. She subverted the political world with art and the artistic world with politics. But now she is gone, and George and her little brother Henry are hurting. Their father is drinking too much, and the children are mainly left to themselves.
Before she died George’s mother took them on a trip to Ferarra, Italy to see the frescoes of Francesco del Cossa in the Palazzo Schifanoia. On the walls of the palace are painted allegories for each month of the year. Cossa painted the Allegories for March, April, and May which are considered the finest in the palace as lesser painters did the other months.
As you can see from the picture of the Allegory of April below, Cossa’s frescos are teeming with life which is something that also could be said of ‘How To Be Both’.
So the ‘George’ part of the novel is about this teenage girl trying to cope with her mother’s death, but it would be a mistake to say that it is sad. We flash back to conversations when George’s mother was still alive which are warm and funny and filled with clever word play.
So how does Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa become a character in this modern novel? His picture of the Saint Vincent Ferrer is in the National Gallery in London. Remembering her trip to Ferrara, George goes to see this picture. Cossa, still in Purgatorium, is hovering over the picture and sees this sad boy. At first he doesn’t realize that George is a girl. But Francesco is actually a girl herself. Her father disguised her as a boy in order for her to pursue a painting career. There is no mention of this in any of the history books; this is most certainly another riotous whim of Ali Smith.
Francesco del Cossa tells his (her?) life story which in Ali Smith’s hands is wicked and bawdy and filled with sexual confusions.
In this funny novel Ali Smith has pretty much undermined our preconceived ideas of what a novel is supposed to be just as she is constantly undermining our notions of sexual identity. I found reading ‘How To Be Both’ to be a joyous anarchic experience. This is a novel for anyone who is getting kind of tired of the straightforward and traditional.