Some of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.
I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!
Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:
it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel
which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.
So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.
The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.
But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.
She has it both ways.
So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.
Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:
She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.
It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.
Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.
There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:
This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just 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 before 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.
And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:
But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
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? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.
George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:
He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.
He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague…
She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?
It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.
For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.
In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?
Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.
Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:
to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.
Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.