Thoughts: How to be Both, by Ali Smith

This was originally not on my list but had been on my radar, and when a friend offered me a copy, I considered it a sign. Before continuing, I’ll explain the structure of the book a bit. How to be Both is essentially two novellas, connected enough to warrant the one book but separate enough that some books are printed with one story first and some the other. You won’t know which order you’re reading in until you start, and that will colour your reading. You can read it again in the opposite order, of course, but I think the first reading will already have shaped your perception of the book. To be both a person who read George’s story first and a person who read Francesco’s story first is one both we cannot be.

So that’s the first thing. I read George’s story first, which means that that’s the person I am, that’s the perspective from which I write this post. The second thing is that I’m going to be extravagantly spoilery, because to not spoil this book is not to be able to talk about it, and these posts are much more “spaces for me to talk about books I read” than they are “helpful recommendations for other people”.

You have been warned.

I really loved this book. I enjoyed both stories, being in George’s head and Francesco’s, making little connections, noticing callbacks (or callforwards depending on how you read it), learning or knowing the answers to questions the characters themselves would never get to know. I suppose everyone feels like the order in which they read the book is the correct order, but I really do – George comes chronologically later, in the 2000s, but Francesco carries the thread of her (George being short for Georgia) story onwards, albeit seen from afar, and in flashes between Francesco’s own autobiography.

Trying to imagine it the other way around is difficult. Francesco comes chronologically earlier but also describes later events – she (Francesco being the male identity of the female artist – told you there would be spoilers!) sort of bookends the whole. It’s impossible for me to imagine because I already had the middle, and the tiny connections linking George’s world with Francesco’s – when Francesco came up against the memory-blank of death, I could supply the answer; I couldn’t just pretend not to know. (Not that I could explain to her, of course, any more than she could explain to George the meanings and nuances of her paintings. All of history and the future, all of time, is a chain of ghosts at each other’s shoulders, unable to communicate.)

Don’t look for convenient symmetries in the two halves. The structure makes it tempting, but there’s none there. No reincarnations or easy truths or lessons to be learned, just two lives glancing off each other by chance. You could wonder if perhaps George will become a Francesco – her masculine name invites the comparison, and you can see a tendency to art in her (looking at it, coming up with ideas for her mother’s subverts, coming up with ideas perhaps for subverts of her own, the photography collage) – but, like Francesco, we’ll never know.

George comes to imbue Francesco’s paintings with meanings of her own, but the paintings are only ever one strand of her mourning. They come close to each other a few times – the Italian holiday, the aborted school project with H – but never quite make contact.

Francesco’s connection to George is odder, but doesn’t come much closer. As a ghost tethered for some reason to George, she can follow George’s life much less patchily, but the distance remains, the insubstantialness, the language barrier, the sheer cultural barrier of all the time that’s passed. Not to mention Francesco’s more pressing concerns of piecing together her own life. For someone who reads George’s story first, the (understandable) ego of the dead might be an obstacle to finding out what happens “next”. For someone who reads Francesco’s story first, George’s wandering attention might be a frustration to filling in Francesco’s legacy. Or they might just be intriguing enough.

I liked all the little echoes and ripples throughout. The delphic tripod, Francesco’s view of smartphones as votive tablets and the future as purgatory after George and H’s speculation on how Francesco would see the present. George seeing the reenactment of the parade that Francesco watched in real time. What does it all mean? I’m inclined to believe that it means nothing. How to be Both is about connections and interpretations and misinterpretations (among other things). The things that are lost to time and the things that remain, and the things that, against all the odds, come back.

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