The Un-Accidental

By Susan McCallum-SmithDecember 2, 2014

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

“WE DO TREAT books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture,” writes Ali Smith, in Artful, her genre-bending release from 2012. “We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.” But “books need time to dawn on us” and are:

[…] always in correspondence with the books which came before them […]. You can’t step into the same story twice — or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings. Because come then go we will, and in that order.

I know it’s bad form to start a review with such a hefty quote but — at the risk of making myself superfluous — the best person to illuminate the work of Ali Smith is Ali Smith. All great books are in correspondence with one another, as she notes, and none more so than her own Artful with How to Be Both, her sixth and most recent novel. Artful can be read as a prequel to How to Be Both, a primer, if you will, on Smith’s creative and metaphysical concerns. A glorious hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, Artful intersperses the story of an unnamed narrator mourning the death of a lover with the texts of four lectures on craft delivered by Smith in early 2012 at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, in which she meditates on grief and form and liminal space, on seeing and being seen, on the nature and meaning of time and art. How to Be Both extrapolates from and dramatizes these meditations, and has just won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, a British literary award founded in 2013 to celebrate inventiveness in the novel form, and whose inaugural choice was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. After Hotel World (2001) and The Accidental (2005), How to Be Both is also the third of Smith’s novels to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and having now read it twice, in both directions so to speak, I’ve decided — and I do not write this flippantly — that Ali Smith is a genius.

Although often labeled a modernist, Smith rarely breaks the boundaries of the fourth wall in the conventional sense. Her modernity springs from a linguistic self-awareness, a playfulness with puns and gender-bending, and a refusal to follow traditional story arcs, which together produce books thrumming with inventiveness. How to Be Both is — to pinch one character’s description of the voice of a chanteuse — “rough with its own aliveness.” In a recent interview, Eimear McBride contended that the mainstream language and linear narratives of classic realist novels are no longer fit for purpose and that English needed to pick up its feet and move; Smith cottoned on to this years ago. Her work is also unfashionably optimistic; in interviews she evinces an enthusiastic engagement with matters both large and small. “The world,” she has said, “is a proliferation.”

Smith has written four collections of short stories and two works of hybrid nonfiction in addition to her six novels, and in many of these books, including How to Be Both and Artful, characters appear who are not quite of this world. In this, Smith, who was born and raised in Inverness, continues a Scottish literary tradition, whose practitioners include James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, Alan Warner, and James Robertson, of tearing a rent in the scrim between the physical and the metaphysical worlds to allow a stranger, or an other to slip through. Her willingness to embrace the supernatural, when taken in conjunction with her acrobatic language, wit, philosophical bent, and her overarching obsession with form, also places her within that select British modernist sisterhood alongside such doyennes as Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Iris Murdoch.

How to Be Both has two sections each labeled “one.” One section, untitled but introduced with a doodle of a surveillance camera, is set in present-day Cambridge, England. Written in a fluid, free, indirect style, it captures the precocious nature and heartbreaking vulnerability of George, a teenage girl whose mother, Carol, has died suddenly from an allergic reaction. George’s life has been severed into a before and an after. Listening to songs now induces “the kind of sadness that actually hurts in the chest,” and daily she comforts her eight-year-old brother Henry when “she sees the knowledge cross his face about three seconds after he opens his eyes.” Carol had been an economist, a journalist, and an anonymous satirist, and interested in all things political and cultural; without her vibrant and charismatic presence, their home has become “as blind as a house, as deaf as a house, as dry as a house, as hard as a house.” While George’s father medicates his grief with alcohol, she attempts, using artwork, music, and dance, to honor the texture of her mother’s life.

A few months before her death, Carol’s interest is piqued by a photograph in a magazine, and she takes George and Henry on a spontaneous trip to Ferrara, Italy, to see the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia — whose name translates roughly into English as the palace of not being bored. Painted around 1469, the frescoes remained hidden for centuries under a heavy coat of whitewash only to be discovered when it began to crack and fall off. The artist responsible for them had once written a letter to his patron demanding a higher fee. “The only reason we know that the painter who did that wall existed, even lived at all, is that he asked for more,” Carol tells George over supper in a piazza’s outdoor café. “Like Oliver Twist,” George replies, a remark that not only alludes to one of the novel’s concerns — the value of art — but is also a sly reference to a book that plays a pivotal role in Artful. At that same supper, Carol tries and fails to engage George in a debate over the relevance of historical events on our present experiences. “You know, Georgie, nothing’s not connected,” her mother says. “If this was a night seventy years ago, we’d be sitting here watching people being lined up and shot against that wall.” George finds these remarks macabre and irrelevant, but later she is both haunted and comforted by the suggestion that things do not cease to exist simply because we did not witness them, or because they are no longer visible.

The other section of How to Be Both is a first-person account by Francesco del Cossa, the artist behind the Palazzo Schifanoia frescoes. The introductory doodle is a flower whose petals take the form of a pair of eyes, a detail lifted from a Francesco painting entitled Santa Lucia. Francesco tells us of his — or rather her — upbringing, for Smith upends historical assumptions about this artist’s gender. The daughter of a Ferrara brickmaker, she serves an apprenticeship disguised as a boy in the “making and training of colors on woods and on walls,” learning how “things far away and close together could be held together, in the same picture.” When she is 17, her best friend Barto, unaware of her sex, takes her to a pleasure house in Bologna; there, she sketches the whores, paying for their time with drawings. By age 19 she has her first commission. “It is a feeling thing to be a painter of things,” she says:

cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are.

Smith’s intent is that we should perceive both George’s and Francesco’s narratives as occurring simultaneously, even though we are not reading them simultaneously. George is unaware of Francesco’s spectral presence in her life; it is her mother’s passing that fuels her interest in this 15th-century artist. Francesco, however, finds herself in the odd predicament of having spiraled through some sort of gash in the fabric of time to awake disembodied yet bound to George, at first mistaking her gender. “It is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don’t.” The opening and closing lines of Francesco’s section are in emblematic verse; that is, the prose is formatted to create a visual pun. It coils like a spring or a double helix, bringing to mind both the mouse’s tale in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice’s own tumble down the rabbit hole — appropriately, because Carroll is another influential ancestor in Smith’s literary lineage. Some copies of How to Be Both have Francesco’s section printed before George’s, while in others this order is reversed. Chance dictates whether the reader of a print edition meets George before Francesco, whereas an electronic edition offers the choice of which to read first.

Unlike some of her contemporaries (for example Will Self or Jonathan Franzen), Smith doesn’t fret about such advances in technology but exploits them to open up her work and detonate the two-dimensional page by igniting linkages and conversations with various forms of art. She seems to believe, as George’s mother believes, that technology can’t help but “highlight the metaphysical.” How to Be Both (and Artful) is littered with what I’ve come to consider her tiny art bombs, those direct or indirect visual, oral, or aural clues that she drops into her texts, like an Alka-Seltzer into water, which set her narratives fizzing, and send curious readers to Google or YouTube, while she remains confident that, having propelled them down such rabbit holes, she can nevertheless lure them back. Time and again I paused over the pages of How to Be Both to chase references highbrow and low. Music from the Pet Shop Boys, Kal Mann, The Proclaimers, and The Seekers, clips from Un film comme les autres, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Georgy Girl, photographs of earthquakes and female actors, together with images of the sublime but strange artwork of Francesco del Cossa, transformed my reading into a multisensory experience.

To return to the two narratives: naturally there are parallels. Both George and Francesco share mothers who “tend disappointingly to die before they ought,” and who prove enormously influential in their daughters’ creative development. Further, Francesco and George’s mother Carol both struggle to maintain control over their personal identities as women and professionals in the face of others’ perceptions, with Carol’s challenges amplified by having children. “Will I ever, as far as you’re concerned,” she asks George, “be allowed to be anything other than your mother?” Carol and George’s relationship, which provides so much of the emotional depth in How to Be Both, is illuminated by a remark made by Francesco’s patron when pointing to her depiction of a mother and daughter in the fresco. “It’s more than motherhood,” he says, “It’s as if they’re in a conversation, but a conversation made of stance.” George comes to realize that the best way to remember her mother is to mirror Carol’s insatiable curiosity, a curiosity mirrored in turn by Francesco’s astonishing, teeming art. “All we are is eyes,” says Francesco about the life of a painter, and George decides that “in honor of her mother’s eyes, she will use her own.”

Eyes, pornography, surveillance: Smith toys with notions of seeing and being seen, in ways both political and sensual. George, convinced that the government had been monitoring her mother before her death, ends up stalking one of Carol’s former friends. Carol, however, had told George that even though her friend was a little weird she’d “liked how she paid attention to me, to my life.” Both to see and be seen is important, Carol suggests, and can be sensual if consensual. George learns this lesson firsthand when it is her turn to be courted, having already witnessed its antithesis in a disturbing clip of pornographic abuse she finds on the internet. Meanwhile, those 15th-century whores appreciate being sketched by Francesco, and it makes them uppity with other clients, who lack her level of attentiveness. Francesco, too, admits to having been seen, in the best sense, during a chance encounter with a beautiful farm worker on a dirt road. With saucy wordplay he tells her that “he needs a twist,” (there’s Oliver again …), and Francesco, using her eyes to memorialize their encounter, paints this beautiful man into her fresco; centuries later it is his photograph in a magazine that causes George’s mother to catch her breath.

Down through time artists have recorded what they have seen, have captured life within a frame — first with paint, then with photography, and now through film or digital means. Few writers write so well about the visual arts as Smith; here is Francesco listing the diverse materials she requires for “the making of pictures”:

We need plants and stones, stonedust and water, fish bones, sheep and goat bones, the bones of hens or other fowls whitened in high heat and ground down fine: we can use the foot of a hare, the tails of squirrels: we need breadcrumbs, willow shoots, fig shoots, fig milk: we need bristles from pigs and the teeth of clean meat-eating animals […].

Art’s value and function also concern Smith. “What does the word make mean?” Carol asks George, while discussing whether or not Francesco had deserved more money for the frescoes. “Imagine if you made something and then you always had to be seen through what you’d made, as if the thing you’d made became you.” Smith is too shrewd to answer such questions directly, but suggests that there is a distinction between the art and the artisan — a useful distinction to bear in mind during our contemporary debates about digital downloads — that though art may be deemed priceless, the artist who makes it deserves to be paid. Regarding the fascinating conundrum of art’s function, Carol believes “art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen,” while George realizes that music is “like having a conversation without needing to say anything,” one of those wonderful conversations, perhaps, between people who truly see one another, a conversation formed entirely of stance. Francesco, meanwhile, argues that art does two things at once: “It lets the world be seen and understood,” while “it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.” Art allows us to be both here and not here; it releases us from the tyranny of time.

“The novel form is always about time,” Smith has said, and time itself is perhaps the fundamental concern of How to Be Both, a concern echoed in her other works. Breaking with conventional novel forms allows Smith (and her readers) to escape conventional notions of time. A mistress of form yet a skeptic of form, she depends on form even as she’s swinging her ax; although she never entirely splinters it — her books are always accessible — she hits it pretty hard because it’s the cracks, the fissures, that intrigue her. Through these seep memory and history and dreams, making time more malleable, more akin to how we actually experience it. She recognizes that although fracturing form draws attention to literature’s artifice, if properly executed, it can feel — counterintuitively — more true. Engaging us in story while, simultaneously, reminding us that what we are reading is a linguistic construct creates a sort of liminal space, what Margaret Atwood (as quoted by Smith in Artful) has described as that moment when Alice passes through the mirror:

Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.

In Artful, Smith also mentions José Saramago’s contention that “however hard writers might try, there is one feat they cannot achieve, that is to put into writing, in the same tense, two events which have occurred simultaneously.” How to Be Both could be perceived as Smith’s attempt to dramatize this very conundrum, while also discoursing on time’s role as the wellspring of grief. Sven Birkerts once wrote that time (in relation to memoir) is not a linear continuum, but something more akin to “four-dimensional chess.” Smith agrees and takes Birkerts’s assertion further by suggesting that time, in terms of history and memory (and, yes, in terms of literature), could also be perceived as a form of energy or a matter of compression. Francesco proves to be singularly gifted at enclosing, in her words, “things far away and close together” within the same frame. Events that have occurred at different times, Smith suggests, could also be held together, compressed, within the same “time frame.” “It’s like everything’s in layers,” says George, standing in front of the frescoes. “Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.”

Smith uses walls as a metaphor for conventional form and linear time, then quietly, daintily, metaphorically, picks up her ax. The novel abounds with walls — not only the wall decorated with Francesco’s frescoes — and Smith’s walls, although apparently solid, always have something layered within them or hidden beyond them, which, through curiosity, decay, accident, or earthquake, will eventually be revealed. Ferrara is a city of battlements, but behind its narrow high-walled streets lie exquisite gardens, whose plant roots burrow through and weaken the masonry. George sits on a wall to spy on her mother’s friend, and once remarks, dryly, to her grief counselor Mrs. Rock, “I am between you and a hard place.” She describes her little brother as “a rift,” “a fault,” “a tectonic plate,” because re-experiencing his mother’s loss with every day’s awakening has ruptured his relationship with time. Francesco, meanwhile, having slipped through time’s scrim is stuck between “me, a boy, and a wall,” and in one of the most touching episodes of the book, George’s father fills his pockets with her mother’s ashes and crisscrosses Cambridge and London, tucking them into the nooks and crannies of the walls in her favorite places. Meanwhile an untended leak in the roof of George’s bedroom causes her posters to peel, and “under them a light brown set of stains, like the map of a tree-root network, or a set of country lanes, or a thousand-times magnified mould, or the veins that get visible in the whites of your eyes when you’re tired,” spreads across the walls, which George now covers with magazine clippings, film stills, and photographs — walls textured with markers of her own life and remembrances of her mother. She hopes the riddling damp will eventually bring down the roof and reveal an infinite, star-filled sky.

When Francesco is a little girl she sees something fall into a bucket of horse piss and becomes upset when the ring on the surface of the liquid caused by its entry disappears. “It’s not gone,” her mother comforts her, “[it]’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go beyond that too.” This visual motif of rings spiraling eternally outward is given a physical dimension when George comes across a sculpture of DNA in the form of a double helix in a local park. “It resembled a joyful bedspring or a bespoke ladder. It was like a kind of shout, if a shout to the sky could be said to look like something,” she thinks. “It looked like the opposite of history,” and she wonders if our perceived notions of history are deceptive, if our pasts are actually past, or if they are still here, like Francesco’s frescoes, underneath a layer of plaster and all we need to do is take a chisel and start chipping.

“There are two ways to read this novel,” said Smith in an interview in The Guardian, “but you’re stuck with it, you’ll end up reading one of them.” I read it twice, beginning first with George, then reversing and beginning with Francesco, but my second reading was radically different from the first because of what I’d already learned — an outcome to be expected when rereading any novel — which is exactly Smith’s point. We can’t forget something once we know it, no matter how hard we try; we cannot step into the same story twice. As George’s mother implied, if we ever have another supper in that Italian piazza, we will imagine gunfire. “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not see it,” she tells George, but “there is always more to see, if you look.” Smith never intended to attempt to tell two stories unfolding simultaneously in that literal manner as described by Saramago — as she says, we’re stuck with reading George’s section either before or after Francesco’s — instead she intended to demonstrate how one story overlaid on another by the process of time and memory always leaves an imprint. “All stories travel with an understory,” she has said, and that is why my second reading of How to Be Both was so satisfying. I saw connections I’d missed the first time because I’d given the book more time to dawn on me. Francesco’s once hidden but now present frescoes not only provided Smith with a subject matter and a template for her novel’s narrative form, but it gave her the perfect metaphor to illuminate her larger point: just because time feels like one damn thing after another — after all we can’t help but come and then go and in that order — it doesn’t mean that we must consider it this way. We could also conceive of time as something energetic, a vibrant, teeming accumulation, which fractures and fissures our daily stockpiling of knowledge and memories, transforming our history, our lives, ourselves, into a palimpsest.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” George’s mother tells her when she first sets eyes on Francesco’s handiwork in the Palazzo Schifanoia. “A friendly work of art. […] It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic, too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.” This description nicely sums up How to Be Both, a book that 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. It might feel as though she breezes through How to Be Both tripping connections by happenstance, but there is nothing accidental about her form, nothing accidental about that subtle shift in tense when George moves into a future without her mother, nothing frivolous behind the wiring of those art bombs.

Those of us who have ever loved or ever grieved will be comforted by How to Be Both, comforted by the notion that time is not linear, receding behind us, but layered, coiled beneath us — like that bespoke ladder, like that joyful shout. We are walking palimpsests, Smith suggests; our lives could be like art, a transformative liminal space, a perpetual now. “I learned,” says Francesco, about “how to tell a story, but to tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it uprising through the skin of it.” When George embraces the future tense and laughs again, her grief is not being displaced by joy — she is not shunting her mother into the past — her grief, though plastered over, will tint, and even energize, every emotion added subsequently to the fresco of her life experiences, will shimmer through the cracks of her exterior like a watermark. If we think of time as Smith would have us do, we do not become older but deeper; no one is ever gone, and nothing is ever lost, that cannot be found again, if sought.


Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings, a collection of stories. She was born in Scotland and currently lives in Ireland.

LARB Contributor

Susan McCallum-Smith writes essays, fiction, and reviews. Her work has appeared in, among others, AGNI, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, the Dublin Review of Books, and the Scottish Review of Books. Her story collection, Slipping the Moorings, was published in 2009. She lives in Scotland.


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