It was only relatively recently and with great delight that I learned the V in DVD referred not to ‘video’, as I’d assumed, but to ‘versatile’. We use it to mean adaptable, or merely useful, but it has the appealing and suggestive original sense of having the quality of turning easily. There has never been any mistaking Ali Smith’s adaptability as a novelist and storyteller (though I suspect she resists adaptation in the usual current sense) but in How to be both, which is both novel and tract on fiction writing, she takes the idea of versatility as her subject matter, as well as demonstrating it in a double narrative of playful sophistication.
The basic outline is easily enough described. Her primary character is a smart, picky teenager called George – for Georgia – living in Cambridge, grieving for her mother, watching her father grieve, watching a slow drip in her bedroom ceiling invest walls, posters, piles of books with a dripdripdrip that’s too briskly described to seem like any kind of intrusive symbol and too insistently not to be. This house of fiction has many windows, but it also has a slate off. At school, though she scarcely seems to need schooling, George runs verbal rings round the grief counsellor, a Mrs Rock who’s been appointed to help her through. In an environment where anything one does is liable to end up on Facebook and YouTube, she’s protected and befriended by a tough, charismatic girl known as H, whose interest may be romantic and sexual as well as supportive and empathetic.
Before her last illness and disappearance into Addenbrooke’s, George’s mother has been an internet gadfly, posting discomfiting pop-up facts, or Subverts, on otherwise bland sites. It’s an activity that may have earned her the attention of the security services, and in particular a shadowy figure called Lisa Goliard, who may just as easily have been the mother’s lover, as H bids to be her own. As a child of the freeze, rewind, repeat generation George enjoys a digital versatility in narrative, constantly flashing back and forth between ‘is’ and ‘was’, ‘says’ and ‘said’ in her mother’s life. It’s a natural enough pre-adult response to recent loss, but also narratively unsettling. And this is where How to be both, which naturalises and humanises some of the ‘experimental’ urge of 1960s fiction – where character was deemed to be neither round nor flat but simply a node of linguistic energy – turns into an exploration of its own processes and means. Rarely has the continuous present tense been so sharply interrogated.
The strongest and most powerful memory George retains of her mother is a trip made before illness struck, an apparently spontaneous whim to see the frescoes of Francesco del Cossa at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Certain figures stand out, and Smith’s back cover image is the one of the decans who oversee the month of March in the Salone del Mesi, an ambiguously gendered youth holding an arrow and a gold ring, traditional Renaissance references to male and female. The front cover, just to note, reproduces a fresh and candid colour poster, given to George by her mother, of French singers Sylvie Vartain and Françoise Hardy, wearing strong Renaissance colours and offering two quite different paradigms of female sexuality.
After her mother’s death, George takes to bunking off school and, with a borrowed credit card, travelling to London to look at a del Cossa in the National Gallery, where she whiles away afternoons making a statistical study of how people look. Then one day Lisa Goliard walks into the room. George follows her and stakes her out. This is where the narrative abruptly changes, or where one narrative ends and another narrative (also numbered ‘1’) begins. Author and publisher would have us believe that the two halves of the book, which apparently exists in two printed forms, can be read independently and in either order.
I’m not so sure. Part one or the first part one might readily work as a stand-alone novella. It contains pretty much everything one needs to know about what follows, which comes to us through the mind of a Francesco del Cossa who is – to no one’s surprise, surely? – female and who observes George observing Lisa from the perspective of a purgatory the Catholic Church abandoned as a concept some time ago but which exists profoundly in modern fiction as the place where ‘character’ resides. Part two, the second part one, is a jeu d’esprit, a breezy account of court politics, courtly romance and art that obeys pre-modern, but also very modern, dictates. This is more obviously ‘experimental’, and more obviously versatile on Smith’s part. The text, reaching us from whatever limbo Francesco/Francesca inhabits, often wanders down the page, like a George Herbert poem, or something from Lewis Carroll. These, oddly, are better comparisons than something more up to date such as B. S. Johnson’s infamous ‘loose-leaf’ novel, The Unfortunates, a book which was designed to be collected rather than read.
Smith’s demands to be read, but not with evenly distributed attention. For my money, the del Cossa narrative is an amusing diversion but one that merely continues and in some important respects softens the themes of the George narrative, which works very powerfully on its own. It won’t escape any reader that the novel poses as a kind of ‘how to’ book, the way Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America was both a satire on fascism and the pastoral, and a guide to landing steelheads. Smith sets out to demonstrate, as the 60s experimentalists did, that the novel can be anything it wants to be and that its versatility, its ability to turn in any direction, is the source of its great and lasting power.
Everything is collapsed here: past and present, present and absent, aliveness and deadness, ambisexuality and the uncertainly gendered attributions of art history. But over and above all that are the structural ambiguities Smith plays with: to do with the difference between seeing and surveillance, ‘point of view’ (a long-standing literary obsession) and omniscience, between character and situation on the one hand and the language in which they are expressed. Somewhere running around the back of this book is the cliché about the picture and the thousand words, and it’s odd how long one spends looking at the cover where Françoise Hardy brushes the hair off her face and looks at, or past, Sylvie Vartain, who is looking narrowly and maybe defensively at something out of shot. It’s an image that becomes more meaningful as the book advances because it sums up many of its thematic and structural quiddities. Just to underline this side of it, each of the book’s sections is fronted with a ‘seeing’ icon, a CCTV camera and a del Cossa eye, respectively.
Mrs Rock, who combines professional acumen and haplessness in the face of a younger and more versatile opponent, pounces on George’s apparent confusion of ‘monitor’ and ‘minotaur’. Watching and being watched, George is led into a labyrinth of memory in which pretty much any opposition, dichotomy, syzygy, dialectic, whatever, can be subsumed under the strangely troubling and even more strangely comforting condition of ‘both’. The last time I remember the word having such resonance in fiction was in the epigraph to Bernard Malamud’s short story collection-come-novel Pictures of Fidelman in which the fictional artist responds to the Yeats lines about perfection of the life or of the art by concluding that he wants the matching pair rather than having to make the choice. How interesting that pictures also figure centrally in Smith’s novel. There’s a tiny one of her on the back flap, underneath a street sign dedicated to del Cossa. It’s a timely reminder that in every page and line this feels like a very personal book, and that if its subject matter seems at times to turn inward that may well be a reflection of its author doing the same, with some pleasure and not a little pain, and not just dazzling us with virtuosic fiction.
How to be both
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, ISBN 978 0241145210, PP384