E1: What do you think of “How to be Both” by Ali Smith?
E2: It’s bloody brilliant! It’s all about a 15th century painter, Francesco del Cossa, who imagines a family looking at his paintings.
E1: Hmm… I think you’ve got it wrong – it’s about an adolescent girl George who imagines the life of del Cossa for a school project after seeing his painting.
E2: No, it’s definitely about del Cossa writing about his development as an artist. He explains how he learns from his stonemason father and the death of his mother. The way he mourns for his mother is one of the most devastating expressions of grief I think I’ve ever read about.
E1: George writes about del Cossa’s loss as a way of processing her own grief about her mother’s death. She’s steeped in memories of her mother and her mother’s curious fixation with this artist. She wants to give life to someone whose gallery summarises him with only a brief vague bio next to his artwork. This is Smith’s attempt to rectify this conundrum about the human condition: “Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves”
E2: Maybe, but I think del Cossa imagines how people in the future will react to his work and see the value in it because he feels that he’s not being fairly compensated for the art he creates. He first learns the true value of his work when he visits a whorehouse where the prostitutes become enamoured with his drawings of them – and they also pay him by keeping his secret from his friend.
E1: What secret? The one between his legs?
E1: George imagines this duality about del Cossa as a way of getting over her own stubborn ideas about people needing to be one gender or the other. She says to her mother: “Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other.” and her mother responded “Who says? Why must it?” One of the greatest lessons George’s mother imparted on her was to question the limitations we artificially impose upon people/things.
E2: Like how del Cossa learns from his mother about trees asking “how can I be seed or tree or both?”
E1: What’s Ali Smith’s obsession with trees anyway? She goes on about them all the time and in lots of her previous writing. People turn into trees. People fall in love with trees.
E2: I don’t know. Maybe something about the tension for the seed which is in between being and becoming. Or how trees grow in a seeming defiance of time? Or, here’s a word for you – dendrophiliac!
E1: Some freaky pictures come up when you Google that word! But I admire the way Smith writes about sexuality. She’s playful with it like it’s something that’s taken more seriously than it probably needs to be, but other people always make it serious because they want to define you and want you to define yourself and then you want to define yourself, but you don’t know what you are really until you find yourself with someone. The way she writes about George and her friend’s budding romance is so moving and honest and about something real but can’t be defined in words. Like how George writes things to her friend, but keeps deleting the messages she’s written because she “knew they were about the something real between them.”
E2: It’s Smith’s way of writing about how so much of our lives are made of the emotions which can’t be recorded. It’s mostly about the moments of joy and hope and fear and loneliness. The kind which aren’t represented accurately in Facebook updates or Tweets.
E1: I loved the way George’s mother rebukes her daughter’s compulsion to look up the answers to everything on the internet. Rather than everything having to be Wikipedia-defined she’d rather bask in the mystery of it all saying “It’s so nice. Not to have to know.”
E2: Yes, and the way del Cossa starts his section in the kind of explosively poetic style that you need to concentrate on. It demands the sort of careful attention no one gives most things anymore because they are so accustomed to the browsing-as-reading style used to search the internet.
E1: No, the style del Cossa writes in is further proof that George is the one writing about him. In his part he’s always using colons in between thoughts and that’s exactly what’s observed about George: “her habit of putting these 2 dots between clauses where a breath should come”
E2: No, this is just another instance of the artist del Cossa imagining the girl looking at his paintings coming to life through his creation of her. It’s like that amazing moment early on in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where the children spy on a woman writing in a garden. Woolf makes herself the author a figment of the children’s imagination, a part of the children’s story that they are telling themselves. George is the girl del Cossa has imagined and she escapes from his mind. It’s what artists do as he describes here: “A picture is most times just picture: but sometimes a picture is more: I looked at the faces in torchlight and I saw they were escapees: they’d broken free from me and from the wall that had made and held them and even from themselves.”
E1: This is getting too confusing. I’m starting to feel like George “I’m so, so tired of what stories are meant to mean.”
E2: Anyway, I think Smith makes herself quite clear about her mission for this book when she writes that this novel is: “how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it” But the question is how do people actually read a book like this?
E1: It’s a matter of where you start and end the story. But there is no right answer because everyone may start and end the story in different places without even realizing it. The book is tricky like that.
E2: I don’t think it matters where you begin and end. Just read it.