How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Reviewed By

I wish I saw the world the way Ali Smith does. I wish, for instance, that I could see beauty in a seed dropped in horse piss. As a small boy, Francesco del Cossa, a real Italian Renaissance painter, sees a ripple in a puddle of horse urine. When the ring reaches the parameters of the puddle, he becomes upset and asks his mother where it went. She replies:

It hasn’t gone, it’s just that we can’t see it any more. In fact, it’s still going, still growing. It’ll never stop growing, or growing wider and wider, the ring you saw. You were lucky to see it at all. Cause when it go to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you? No? But it did, you’re inside it now. I am too. We both are. And the yard… And the horses, and your father, your uncle, and your brothers, and the workmen, and the street… See how far your eye can go. See the tower and the houses in the distance? It’s passing through them and nothing and nobody will feel a thing but there it is doing it nonetheless… The ring you saw in the water’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go beyond that too. Nothing can stop it.

She looked down into the horse piss.

And all from the fall of a seed, she said.

This passage comes in the early pages of my version of How to Be Both, Smith’s lively and contemplative new novel. I say ‘my version’ because Smith has chosen to publish the book two different ways: one that opens with the painter del Cossa and concludes with the story of George, a young girl in present day, and another with the parts swapped. One’s interpretation of the novel, then, depends a bit on luck.

So even though the two editions differ only in the ordering of two parts, the change in the end result is huge. In my version Francesco del Cossa goes first, and his story revolves around a fresco he painted in “the palace of not being bored” in the 1460s. Del Cossa, though a great artist (he frequents a harem where the women pay him to paint them), is a pompous and insecure man who constantly compares himself with his contemporary, Cosimo, a more successful painter, whom he refers to derogatorily as Cosmo. The fresco in the palace is made up of twelve sections, divided up into months. Del Cossa has been assigned March, and since he believes himself to be the most valuable artist there, he writes a letter to the duke asking for more money.

The whole occasion for del Cossa’s story, I should add, is that he’s dead and stuck in what he believes to be purgatory, which takes the form of following around George, a young girl whom he first stumbles on while visiting a gallery in London, intensely staring at one of his works. Del Cossa doesn’t understand why he’s attached to this girl (or what she’s doing watching pornography in a garden), and truthfully he doesn’t seem all that concerned. Through del Cossa, the reader gathers some information about the girl (whom he first mistakes as a boy), but not much. Instead, he tells the story of his fresco.

In the second half, we get the girl’s side of the story. George, short for Georgiana, has lost her mother, and her grief takes many forms. She creates a ritual for herself, involving a daily dance, mirrored on her mother, and the repetitive viewing of a disturbing pornographic film for which a very young girl was clearly exploited. “This really happened,” she tells her concerned father, who has become a drunk since his wife’s death, “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.” Meanwhile, George has an intensely confusing relationship with Helena Fisker, a friend from school.

So here’s where the luck comes in. Throughout her half of the book, George continually recalls the last few months of her mother’s life, including a trip the family took to Italy to see Francesco del Cossa’s fresco. Her mother, a former political activist, has become uncharacteristically preoccupied with this particular piece, earnestly calling it a “friendly work of art.” She surprises George by devouring all the information she can about frescoes and del Cossa, like this apposite bit:

…when some frescoes in a different Italian city were damaged in the 1960s in a bad flooding and the authorities and restorers removed them to mend them as best they could, they found, underneath them, the underdrawing their artists had made for them, and sometimes the underdrawings were significantly different from their surfaces, which is something they’d never have discovered if there hadn’t been the damage in the first place.

Here is a key to Smith’s spellbinding novel. Like the frescoes described here, George’s story functions like an “underdrawing” to del Cossa’s story. By the end of del Cossa’s section, after he quits his work at the palace and flees to another city, he discovers that his fresco has mesmerized visitors. “[People] stand there as long as they can,” del Cossa’s assistant tells him, “Some have even started coming in with their sleeves full of hidden flowers and at a given signal between them all they let their arms fall to their sides and the flowers fall out of their clothes on to the floor beneath them.” Though pleased that people value his work, del Cossa’s first thought is to wonder “if Cosmo had heard about my pictures and all about the people coming to look at them.”

In George’s eyes, though, del Cossa’s fresco is loaded with meaning and beauty and personal significance. It was, after all, her mother’s final obsession, the last thing that seemed to fill her with life. Just as important is the connection del Cossa helps create between George and Helena. In the ordering of this version, George’s story, coming second, takes a commissioned work that del Cossa created in competition against his rival and turns it into something much more beautiful and artful. Just because del Cossa painted with fame and recognition in mind doesn’t mean that the final product can’t be exquisitely and powerfully affecting. The story of del Cossa shows a somewhat cynical view of art, whereas George’s story displays art’s infinitely malleability, the remarkable way art nestles itself into the contours of our lives. In other words, a 600-hundred-year-old painting can be relevant and revelatory to a little girl.

How, then, would one interpret the novel with the order reversed? For those readers, George’s painful and earnest grieving would come first, del Cossa’s self-aggrandizing tale second. Would that mean that the final note of the book would be del Cossa’s pomposity? Would his story deflate George’s? I’ll never know, because I can’t ever go back and experience it for the first time again. Luck brought me this version. I can’t have both.

Art is funny that way––considering the bewildering profusion of creative work in the world, the select few that we get to experience come to us through random happenstance and dumb luck. The slightest revision to the sequence of events could completely alter one’s aesthetic progression––hell, one’s entire life. George’s mother tells her the story of del Cossa’s request for higher pay and the ironic consequence of that demand:

Because that letter he wrote’s the only reason we know anything about that artist even existing. And they only found that letter a hundred years ago. Which was more than four hundred years after he painted his bit of the walls. For four hundred years he didn’t exist. No one even knew the room had frescoes in it till only about a hundred or so years ago, end of the eighteen hundreds. They’d been whitewashed over for hundreds of years.

So in the end del Cossa was right––his art was worth more than his contemporaries’. And his attempt to right this wrong was the only thing that gave him an identity after his death. This identity became the one that fascinates George and connects her, albeit tenuously, to her mother and her new friend Helena.

Smith’s novel shows that art is like people; it can contain multitudes. Del Cossa’s fresco is a product of crass commercialism and a transcendent work of art. It is relic of a former epoch and it is vitally relevant now. Art is nothing and something; or, as George’s mother puts it, “Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.” Art is as versatile as we are––which is much more than people often see. A person can be heartless and considerate. They can be a boy and a girl, happy and miserable, in love and alone. Most of the arbitrary dichotomies we divide things into are useless at best and harmful at worst. These reductive either/or’s do not speak to the infinite complexity of existence. They do not allow for, as it were, both.

How to Be Both is, after The Accidental, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, and Artful, Smith’s fifth masterpiece in a row. Her inimitable writing sneaks into you with its deceptive readability, but it’s her radiating intelligence that stays with you. Her mind works wonders on a theme, able to find lovely and profound connections in seemingly anything. She’s a passionately caring writer whose emotional generosity spills out into her pages, trickling out of her books like an overflowing champagne flute. She is among the best experimental writers alive today, and one of the best fiction writers in general. She sees meaning and beauty everywhere. And like the expanding ring in the horse piss that extends out forever, I am wholly within her ripple. Her tremendous gifts have enveloped me and everything else, too. I may never see the world the way Ali Smith does, but she’s undoubtedly altered my perception of it.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Read It Forward. His work has also appeared in Tin House, the Atlantic, the San Francisco ChronicleThe MillionsRolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →