How to be both , Author: By Ali Smith, Publisher: Penguin Books
Like was the last novel of Ali Smith I tried to read before this one (which I actually read). A friend who loves the author had given me a copy of Like with a supposedly clever inscription, something about the hope that I would like Like. (Not very clever now, yes, I know).
Forget liking Like, the same friend had given me another of her novels, Hotel World, a few years before that, and I couldn't get through that one either. Soon, I began to disregard this friend's taste in books and movies, because, except for a handful, most of them went over my head. Among a bunch of other meh-movies and books I didn't enjoy: A Clockwork Orange. (What's with all the rape and noise, and why are they all milk-drinking maniacs?).
I concede the problem lies not with the artist/ art/ recommendations but in the watcher/ reader of the art ie, yours truly: pleb with set tastes, and little patience/ understanding with jokes and narratives that are too clever, too gimmicky, too joke-within-a-joke. It's the bane of a lazy reader. I want it to come to me without too much of a fight.
Ali Smith's novels invoke a slight dread in me. I am somewhat ashamed of myself for not magically being able to fathom her playful brilliance more entirely. But I really wish they were easier to read. I wish I didn't have to, at times, drag myself back a few pages, to stay with the plot, and enjoy the nuances, appreciate complexities and all of that. Ali Smith, the mere mention, sends me back to college, back to when I was enrolled in a post-grad course in Linguistics, and couldn't make head or leg of anything in Syntax class, which is a lot like how I felt reading the second, arty half of How To Be Both - an illiterate and a failure.
Another trippy playful thing about the book - some editions have the art second half as the first and the easy first half as the second. That itself is a fabulous quirk.
So, about How to Be Both. I got the plot. I got what's going on (after a while). I got that there are two narratives, half a book each. I got that in one plot a girl is mourning her mother who used to take her two kids to art galleries in Italy, and the other plot is about a Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, and the fresco cycle in the Ferrara Palazzo in Italy. I got that there's a bit of zigzag/ funny mirrors/ time travel thing happening.
I can't call it consistently delightful because I didn't understand it consistently. But there are moments when the two stories merge and zip and cross reference - and those bits are heady. You have to stop and say oooh, look what she just did here. I'm sure my friend will give me two points for at least realising she can be very trippy. There's a beautiful passage even in the second (incomprehensible to me) part - the arty Italian painter part - of the book about a cup of forgetting and a cup of remembering. Too long a passage to reproduce, but it ends with how remembering and forgetting are basically the same thing. That was moving.
I loved the first half - the George and dead mother half. Comic and profound and so much easier. It surprised me just how much I liked it, a definite personal victory, given my disastrous history tackling Ali Smith. In How to Be Both, I at least got how to be one. Hurray!
The second, I didn't fully get. (The second, remember could be the first, depending on which copy you pick up.)
So in my first half - Penguin edition - a teenage girl, George (but actually, Georgia) is mourning her mother who was alive not too long ago, and whose job it used to be to (as George says to her therapist at school) "subvert political things with art things, and to subvert art things with political things".
At one point George makes a friend, H. And at a subsequent point, H tells George that she told her mother about George and George's mother. And H's mother said, in a light French accent that H imitated: "It is not fair for your friend, she is not going to get the important boredoms and mournings and melancholies that are her due and are owing to her just from being the age that she is, for now it will be interrupted by real mournings and real melancholies."
There are other beautiful passages. The lack of beauty is not a problem at all, not in Smith's plot, not in her sentences, not in anything Ali Smith touches, and definitely not in her real life efforts recently to save public libraries in England.
My guess is the beauty in construction of the book becomes more apparent in the second reading. To fully grasp and better appreciate what Ali Smith I suspect has pulled off with this book, I at least need a second reading, a slower, more patient one. For now, maybe they should put it on the undergrad syllabus of Literature students, to ensure professorial hand holding through the tough parts, and a deeper understanding of what's going on in these ancient art galleries of parallel universe fame.
The writer is assistant editor with Khaleej Times
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