- - Thursday, April 9, 2015


By Ali Smith

Pantheon, $25.95, 372 pages

Can something be both male and female, present and past, light and dark, alive and dead, in the real world and in a fantasy? These are just some of the questions that arise in Ali Smith’s tantalizing new novel, “How to Be Both.” In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Smith explained, “The book was about observation and what we see and don’t see when we look, and I had a notion that it should be about time.” And so it is, very successfully.

“How to be Both” contains two independent novellas, one about a real-life 15th-century painter, Francesco del Cossa, and the other about a 20th-century English schoolgirl, George (real name Georgia, named for the song, “Georgie Girl”), living in Cambridge. George’s story, while more engaging and accessible, is less poetic. Although the two stories appear to be unrelated, they are intertwined, slipping backward and forward. The book is published in two versions: one with the del Cossa story first, the other starting with the contemporary tale.

The reader’s interpretation of the novel as a whole depends partially on which story is read first. My version began with del Cossa, and I found that after finishing George’s story, I had to go back to the first to make sense of what I had read but didn’t quite understand. There are illusions/jokes, which make sense only if one has read the second story, whichever that might be.

Ms. Smith has a good time, as do her readers. She is playful and serious, erudite and down to earth, mysterious and realistic, and always surprising. In the 15th-century story, she has added an “h” to del Cossa’s first name and changed his sex to a woman living as a man. In the contemporary story, George is a girl with a boy’s name.

Del Cossa, son of a stonemason, is famous for his frescoes, primarily his extraordinary work in the Palazzo Schifanoia, the pleasure palace of the Este family outside Ferrara. Also real are Leon Alberti, whose treatise “On Painting” and Cennino Cennini’s “The Craftsman’s Handbook” were works admired and relied upon by Ms. Smith’s protagonist.

Fictitious is the young girl who appears to the painter with a magical tablet, a foretelling of the “magic” iPad that appears centuries in the future in the second story.

One of the most delightful episodes in del Cossa’s story is his/her visits to a brothel where the painter paints the portraits of the prostitutes, much to their pleasure. Less delightful is Ms. Smith’s constant use of the word, “cause,” instead of “because.” Perhaps because it sounds a bit like del Cossa. Perhaps not.

Little is known about del Cossa; it is assumed he died of the plague at approximately age 47. What is known is that he requested better pay from the Este family for his work on the fresco based on the excellence of his work as compared to other artists. That request figures in both stories.

The book is about art as well as time: “Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen,” is the way George’s mother puts it. Del Cossa says “love and painting both are works of skill and aim: the arrow meets the circle of its target, the straight line meets the curve or circle, 2 things meet and dimension and perspective happen: and in the making of pictures and love — both — time itself changes its shape: the hours pass without being hours, they become something else, they become their own opposite, they become timelessness, they become no time at all.”

Time, or timelessness, are equally important in both stories, The teenager has lost her mother and is left with her little brother, Henry, and her distraught father who deals with his loss with alcohol. As George dreams of her dead mother, so too did del Cossa dream of his dead father.

George talks to her mother as if she were still alive, and her thoughts go back to the last trip she took with Henry and her mother to Ferrara to see the del Cossa fresco. The trip is a memorable one, not only for the impression made by the fresco, but also for the conversation and questions raised between mother and daughter about time.

After her mother’s death, George is caught between her loneliness and the weekly “psychiatric” sessions with school counselor Mrs. Rock, who either lectures or sits in silence. Like del Cossa, George has only one friend, H, with whom she is able to discuss her existential yearnings. She surreptitiously travels up to London where she is mesmerized by del Cossa’s portrait of Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery. The more she looks at the painting, the more she sees. “[W]hich comes first? … What we see or how we see?”

When George says “Past or present? … Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other,” her mother replies, “Who says? Why must it?” So too, Ali Smith presents her readers with the same questions. Time remains a mystery. As Mrs. Rock tells George, “the word mystery originally meant a closing of the mouth or the eyes. It meant an agreement or an understanding that something would not be disclosed. A closing. Not to be disclosed.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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