CategorySmith Ali

"Here I am again : me and a girl and a wall"

howtobebothAli Smith, How to be both (2014)

So much is in the timing: for years I never read Ali Smith (no particular reason; she was just one of those writers I never got around to). My first was Artful, a couple of years ago; I liked it, but it didn’t strike me as a good way into the author’s work. Now felt like a good time to try again: as I want to explore ‘experimental’ fiction (I don’t much like that term, but it’ll do for what I mean), and have resolved to savour the tide of words more when reading, Smith seemed an author I might respond to well. And so it proved.

Perhaps the first thing to make clear about How to be both is which version I read. The novel is in two parts, one focusing on a girl named George who lives in present-day England, the other on the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa. The order in which the two halves are presented varies between copies, and you can’t tell from the outside which is which. Alan Bowden asked me on Twitter which version I had; ‘George first,’ I told him. He replied, ‘I can’t imagine reading it that way.’ It’s testament to Smith’s skill that I can’t imagine reading How to be both the other way around (I can see where the connections would be, but so logically does Del Cossa’s half follow on from George’s that the sense of the experience eludes me. I’m sure I’d feel the same had I read the other version – which I fully intend to do one day).

As its title suggests, How to be both is full of duality and mirroring. Both sections collapse the sense of linear time: George’s story moves between her present life, and a few months earlier when her mother was still alive; Del Cossa tells of his life in the fifteenth century, but has also been incarnated as a spirit in the present, where he shadows George. As George also views Del Cossa’s frescoes, the two protagonists observe and are observed by each other, in their own strange loop. So really, both sections come before each other; although I do feel that most of the novel’s emotional weight likes in George’s half. Then again, Del Cossa’s art is intrinsic to making it all happen. You still need both halves to make up the whole.

For all that How to be both dissolves chronological boundaries for the reader, the passage of time remains of central importance to the characters, especially George. She still struggles to comprehend a world in which her mother is no longer alive, and the gap of those few months between life and death is ultimately as vast for George as that between her own time and her mother’s youth in the 1960s – another life that the girl can’t truly envisage. When George’s mother first takes her daughter to see Del Cossa’s paintings in Italy, George can’t see the relevance, can’t see the layers of meaning that her mother can. With time, though, she’s able to do so, thereby bringing the past closer (her intense observation of the artist’s work is what brings Del Cossa’s spirit back); it’s also symbolic of George starting to come to terms with what has happened.

I must mention Smith’s prose, which flows like a river changing course unexpectedly: past and present, dialogue and description, action and reflection merge into one another, always with an unstoppable momentum. After this, Ali Smith goes on to my list of must-read authors – and not before time.

 

 

Books in brief: early January

It’s a blogging anniversary – four years ago today, I published the first post here on Follow the Thread (a review of the movie Once). A further 728 posts have followed it, and there are more to come. Here’s one now – let me round-up some of the books I’ve been reading in the last few weeks…

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Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012). A judge retires to her old house in the central highlands of Malaysia, recalling the old Japanese gardener she knew there in her adolescence – the Japanese Emperor’s one-time gardener, no less. This is a very still, quiet book: its language can be overly ornate, but does create that atmosphere also well. Eng also paints a complex picture of morality and history.

Ali Smith, Artful (2012). Four lectures on aspects of art, delivered by Smith at the University of Oxford in early 2012. Essayistic reflections on art are folded into the ongoing story of a woman haunted by her dead lover (who may or may not have returned). This is thought-provoking stuff, and I suspect it would be excellent read aloud by the author. Perhaps not the ideal book for me to choose as my introduction to Smith’s work, though.

James Renner, The Man from Primrose Lane (2012). David Neff, a successful writer still sorely missing his dead wife, investigates the mysterious murder of a recluse – and finds his reality growing more and more unstable. There’s considerable charm in the raggedness of Renner’s debut novel; and, especially in the middle, the slippage between perceptions and realities is quite exhilarating. On the flipside, the book sidelines its female characters, and it collides two genres in such a way that they tend to undermine rather than reinforce each other.


Pierre Szalowski, Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather (2007; tr. Alison Anderson 2012).
Montreal, January 1998: a boy’s parents split up, he calls to the sky for help – and a severe ice storm descends. New relationships are forged as the community is brought closer together. Szalowski’s prose is light and breezy, perhaps a little too much so –the novel aims for a deep emotional connection which I never quite felt.

Kobo Abe, The Face of Another (1964; tr. E, Dale Saunders 1966). A scientist disfigured in an accident determines to create the perfect mask; when he succeeds, he finds himself thinking of the mask as a separate entity. I found this an interesting book – in terms of both its philosophical reflections on what faces mean to us, and its characterisation of the protagonist, with his increasing lack of self-awareness – but it was also dry, and my enthusiasm for writing about it further waned as the pages turned.

Patrick Neate (ed.), Too Much Too Young (2012). The second annual anthology from Neate’s “literary club night”, Book Slam. Twelve stories from writers including David Nicholls, Marina Lewycka, and Nikesh Shukla, each taking its title from a song. It’s a diverse set of stories, with the passing of time as the most common theme. My pick of the volume is Chris Cleave’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’, in which a man shows his grandmother (who has dementia) how to use the internet, leading to poignant contrasts of past and future.

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