How to be both

How to be both

by Ali Smith


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MAN BOOKER PRIZE FINALIST • A novel all about art's versatility, borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take.

"Cements Smith’s reputation as one of the finest and most innovative of our contemporary writers. By some divine alchemy, she is both funny and moving; she combines intellectual rigor with whimsy" —The Los Angeles Review of Books

How to be both is a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance. Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307275257
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 247,137
Product dimensions: 5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ali Smith is the author of many works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.

Read an Excerpt

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.
Not says. Said. 
George’s mother is dead.
What moral conundrum? George says.
The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side the driver’s seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.
Okay. You’re an artist, her mother says.
Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum? 
Ha ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it. You’re an artist.
This conversation is happening last May, when George’s mother is still alive, obviously. She’s been dead since September. Now it’s January, to be more precise it’s just past midnight on New Year’s Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George’s mother died.
George’s father is out. It is better than him being at home, standing maudlin in the kitchen or going round the house switching things off and on. Henry is asleep. She just went in and checked on him; he was dead to the world, though not as dead as the word dead literally means when it means, you know, dead.
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.
Anyway George is spending the first minutes of the new year looking up the lyrics of an old song. Let’s Twist Again. Lyrics by Kal Mann. The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.
Do you remember when
Things were really hummin’. 
Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad? 
Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time. 
At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says. 
I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.
That before and after thing is about mourning, is what people keep saying. They keep talking about how grief has stages. There’s some dispute about how many stages of grief there are. There are three, or five, or some people say seven. 
It’s quite like the songwriter actually couldn’t be bothered to think of words. Maybe he was in one of the three, five or seven stages of mourning too. Stage nine (or twenty three or a hundred and twenty three or ad infinitum, because nothing will ever not be like this again): in this stage you will no longer be bothered with whether songwords mean anything. In fact you will hate almost all songs.
But George has to find a song to which you can do this specific dance.
It being so apparently contradictory and meaningless is no doubt a bonus. It will be precisely why the song sold so many copies and was such a big deal at the time. People like things not to be too meaningful.
Okay, I’m imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January stares at the meaninglessness of the words of an old song. Outside the car window Italy unfurls round and over them so hot and yellow it looks like it’s been sandblasted. In the back Henry snuffles lightly, his eyes closed, his mouth open. The band of the seatbelt is over his forehead because he is so small.
You’re an artist, her mother says, and you’re working on a project with a lot of other artists. And everybody on the project is getting the same amount, salary-wise. But you believe that what you’re doing is worth more than everyone on the project, including you, is getting paid. So you write a letter to the man who’s commissioned the work and you ask him to give you more money than everyone else is getting.
Am I worth more? George says. Am I better than the other artists?
Does that matter? her mother says. Is that what matters?
Is it me or is it the work that’s worth more? George says.
Good. Keep going, her mother says.
Is this real? George says. Is it hypothetical?
Does that matter? her mother says.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of How to be both, the playfully experimental, emotionally wrenching, and aesthetically inquisitive two-in-one novel by Ali Smith, which juxtaposes the stories of two young women from different centuries and different countries to explore the intrinsic values of art in the shaping of one’s identity.

1. One of the many unique things about How to be both is the fact that the book has been printed in two ways, half with the section “Camera” preceding “Eyes” and half the other way around. Discuss among the members of your group (or, if you read this yourself, imagine) the way your experience of the novel as a whole was different depending on which section you read first. How does this first impression influence your ability to imagine the experience of the reverse order, too, or if you were to read the novel again the opposite way? Do you think one order is stronger than the other, and if so why?

2. What are some of the types of dualities or binaries explored in the novel, implicitly and explicitly? When characters are aware of them, does that recognition of a thing or scenario as being “both” lead to greater clarity or greater ambiguity?

3. Compare the first-person voice of Francescho with the third-person voice of George. How do these narrative differences reflect each of their characters as well as the question of what it means to see vs. seen?

4. Both George and Francescho lose their mothers in adolescence. How does that absence influence their (young) adult identities, including with respect to their femininity/gender? How do they each try to preserve their mother via their own creations? Consider the main ways that they represent themselves in the book and in the world, such as how they dress and even their first names and variations thereof, and how successful they are in altering their genders.

5. How do the two fathers in the book shape their children’s identities—their daughters’ and sons’ alike?

6. What kind of comforts and challenges do the young boys—George’s brother and Francescho’s assistant—present to these characters?

7. Francescho and George both have extreme first impressions of sex, via the “house of pleasure” and pornography, respectively. How do you think this explains, affects, or might be intrinsic to their complicated sexual identities and romantic interests in their stories?

8. The major piece of connective tissue between the two parts of the novel is George’s mother’s love of a painting by Francesco del Cossa, whom we meet/have met as the narrator in “Eyes.” Besides this crucial narrative tie, how do painting and frescoes in particular inform themes of love and memory in the two parts?

9. How do you think George’s mother’s impression of the del Cossa’s Saint Vincent painting would change if she knew the artist’s story, or even met him, as we do in the novel?

10. In what way does Ali Smith play with experimental aesthetic forms in her construction of How to be both? How are other female innovators (most unacknowledged by history) featured in the novel?

11. Do George and Francescho “speak” as differently as you’d expect for characters separated by over 500 years and from different parts of the world? How does Smith illustrate through their language their own self-awareness? Which do you think has more command over her/his expression, linguistically and/or visually?

12. How does George’s relative freedom/mobility, even at a young age, in her present-day setting affect her ability to grieve and pursue her curiosities in ways that were unavailable to or more difficult for Francescho?

13. The five epigraphs of the novel share a theme of the connection between creation and destruction. How does this idea manifest itself in the novel? Consider Francescho’s citation of Alberti’s idea that “the process of drawing and painting outwits death and you draw any animal by isolating each bone of the animal, and on to this adding muscle, then clothing it all with its flesh : and this giving of muscle and flesh and bones is what in its essence the act of painting anything is.”

14. One of George’s many intellectual obsessions is etymology, and at one point Mrs Rock explains to her the original meaning of the word “mystery”: “a closing, of the mouth or the eyes. It meant an agreement or an understanding that something would not be disclosed.” How and when does this word and/or original meaning come up in “Eyes”?

15. George also defines “helix” as “Greek for twist.” How did encountering this definition influence your reading of the helix-shaped verse sections that open and close the “Eyes” sections, including depending on which section you read first? How did your understanding of the closing helix change after you had read the entire section and knew more about Francescho’s aesthetic?

16. One of the paintings that George and H see by del Cossa of the Annunciation features a snail at the bottom “crossing as if it’s a real snail crossing a picture. The snail shape is nearly the same as the God shape [with] a perfect spiral in the shell.” What does this image represent about the novel as a whole and its central themes?

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