It is like everything is in layers. 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. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re all also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both — the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. (p.53)
This is a novel ( if you can call it so) that is cleanly divided in to two parts. The first part, set in the 1960s, is narrated by George, the conversations she had with her mum especially concerning art and life with her father and at school after her mother passed away. Her mother, Dr Carol Martineau, an economist journalist was not exactly famous, but was prominent — “she had quite an important job at a think-tank and occasionally published opinion pieces in the Guardian or the Telegraph and sometimes also the American papers in their European editions, and a lot more people knew who she was after it was unveiled in the papers about the guerilla internet stuff.” Of all the whacky things her mother was known to have done, the craziest was the spontaneous trip to Ferrara, Italy she took her two children to. She wanted to show them the frescoes painted by Francesco del Cossa ( 1435-77). The second part of the book is narrated by Francesco, set in Renaissance Italy, describes the life of the artist, apprenticing to his father and later earning his own commissions, most notably the frescoes at Ferrara.
Much of the experience of reading the book depends upon the level of engagement the reader has with the book. Also it does not seem to matter to the quality of experience gained, if you read George’s story first or Francesco del Cossa, either which way it will work. This experimentation with the form and content is much in keeping with Ali Smith’s views on the topic. In a lecture that she delivered at the Edinburgh Writer’s Festival in 2012 – “Style vs Content: How should authors approach the task of writing a novel today?” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHOSXziim9A ) she explored the issues about form, style and content and the task of a reader. Ali Smith quotes Jane Austen who wants her readers to be clever. Ali Smith goes on to say that style is important and integral to the art of a novel, but it is not a language. It is derived from the Latin word that means it is a stylus or a writing implement.
How to be both has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. It is a well deserved spot in the limelight. If it wins the Booker, remains to be seen. I hope it does!
Ali Smith How to be Both Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs. 599
9 October 2014