Tag: art

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith

Questions from Masters Degree Assessment


Smith’s novel was printed in two versions, identical but for the order of the two stories which it contains. Which of the novel’s strands – George’s and Francesco’s – did your copy of the novel begin with?
How did this ordering affect your experience and understanding of the novel?
How do you think this would have differed had you picked up the alternate version?
Did you prefer one strand to the other? If so, why? On a related point, would the novel work better had Smith chosen a particular set order? To what extent does/could either strand stand alone?
My copy began with Francesco’s strand which was so disjointed (especially in the beginning) that I found myself struggling with confusion as to who was speaking and what he/she was talking about.It took a while for the sense of time, place and person to become real but once it did it was quite compelling.The writing about art was fascinating and I do think both strands could stand alone. However, I think they work well together.It would have been easier to come to grips with a version that began with the George strand. This was more solid and seemed to give a stronger sense of story, whereas the Francesco strand was detail and description and elaboration.I think I would have been more inclined to continue if the George strand had come first.It is likely I wouldn’t have persevered past the first few pages of the Francesco strand had it not been required for the course.
Why do you think Smith made this unconventional choice? Is How to Be Both a successful novelistic experiment, in your opinion?
From reading the article where Smith discusses what inspired her to write this book, it’s clear that she was inspired by a picture at a time that she had been looking for a new idea for a novel.  To me, the defining part of that article is when Smith says “I’d liked the notion that those first drawings had been there, unseen all along under the wall surface, which is, after all, what fresco is, an actual physical part of the wall. I’d been wondering if it might be possible to write a book consisting of something like this structure of layer and underlayer, something that could do both”.  I do feel that this is a successful experiment,  though the lack of initial clarity could put off less persevering readers.  Though the book isn’t plot led, plenty does go on, with some engaging characterisation and gorgeous prose – and this is certainly one of my favourites on this course.  The cover (two women walking along a street) really did not endear the book to me and I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with the actual story.  I thought the book was going to be chick-lit.  I discovered that this is the photograph mentioned in the novel (of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan) regarding a similarity to George. But it didn’t encapsulate the novel in my opinion.
We’ve discussed several novels in the unit which employ various forms of stranding (the alternating letters, novelistic prose, and magic realist history of Trachimbrod in Everything is Illuminated; the linear Leah/Felix/Keisha structure of NW; the similarly linear character stranding in Arlington Park). Smith could have chosen to structure How to Be Both in an alternating way (George/Francesco/George/Franceso, etc.). How would this more ‘recursive’ structure have altered the text, in your opinion? 
A more recursive structure could have been beneficial, but ultimately this structure did work.I enjoyed getting inside the head of Francesco and George and really found that devoting a section to each was beneficial.However, I don’t think this is a book which gives everything on first read.I’m looking forward to reading the Francesco section again, having now read the George section as I think the subtlety will come across better at the second time.


How do the two strands relate to each other (or not)? Which themes and ideas run through both stories? Do they do so convincingly/satisfactorily, in your opinion? To what extent does one story elucidate or enhance our understanding of the other?
The two stories cross very well.There are some direct connections and references which make the reader think further about the overlap.It seems perhaps obvious to have a character in a photo or painting interacting with the viewer, but is a lot less usual for the interaction to be with a not particularly well known painter.I enjoyed this unusual feature very much.The themes of art appreciation, difficulty fitting into the world, and conflict in general do come across brilliantly.
Why is the novel called How to Be Both? How many ‘boths’ (reflections, pairings, binaries oppositions) can you identify in the text?
Both relating to: two genders, two historical eras, “top layer and underlayer” of story (like fresco), famous and anonymous, alive and in purgatory, “every circumstance or obstacle can be subverted and become its opposite at the same time” (atlantic.com review), British teen/Italian fresco painter, two sexualities, and “Why, Smith seems to ask, should we expect a book to run from A to B, by way of a recognisable plot and subplot, peopled by characters who are easily understood to be one thing or another?” (Guardian review).
How is time and tense treated in the novel? How does the novel articulate the distinction between now and then, past and present, which we’ve discussed, for example, in relation to Ian McEwan’s Saturday?
The Francesco section is about a woman artist who lived as a man.She is in purgatory in the present, and recalls her past life many centuries ago.The George section is set in the current day with musings on the past and on art.I am sorry – this was the final question I looked at and I didn’t get time to answer properly as my copy of the book has been lost somewhere in the mess of my house with the builder, plaster and rewiring electricians all going on at the same time.
Characterise the narrative voice, and other literary qualities, in both strands. How do they compare and contrast? In what ways might the choice of narrative perspective help or hinder in both stories?
I am sorry – I didn’t have time to answer this question and couldn’t find the book.
How would you describe Smith’s style? Is How to Be Both in fact a novel of multiple styles? If possible, find examples to help make your case.
I adored the Ali Smith Observer article – ‘He looked like the finest man who ever lived’ – the love of life and art shine out in her prose which, to me, is a true credit to the white-clad figure in the painting.
The style is an abstract and disjointed first person in the Francesco section- and its rambling muses take a little getting used to.The George section is more traditional prose, and works well after Francesco.
Substantial sections of the novel are devoted to the description of art works and other visual images. What affects does this detailed verbal exploration of images have? Did you feel it was successful? Does Smith run any risks in relying so heavily upon this approach? (You might find it interesting to look up the term Ekphrasis and decide whether or not this idea could be justifiably related to the novel.)
I absolutely love the writing about artistry and art works in this novel.  The techniques used, the cheekiness of the artist, the prostitute visits to draw the human form… it all works so well for me as someone who loves art and it surrounded by it.  I don’t know much about this period of art and found it fascinating, yet I do think there is a chance that Smith may run the risk of alienating potential readers who don’t experience the same sense of enjoyment from this approach.  Mind you, would such readers pick up this book?  I don’t know.  Regarding “ekphrasis” – this relates to a piece of work which is directly about a piece of art or music etc – I would say that this book definitely fits.  It doesn’t only use a huge amount of description about artworks and techniques, it also was inspired by a real life painting.
Are there any other issues relating to the novel which you’d like to discuss?
Close Readings (obviously accurate pagination is a problem in this novel, so I’ve decided to look at the openings of both stories)
The opening five and a half pages of George’s story, from ‘Consider this’ to ‘below the voice.’
The opening six pages of Francesco’s story, from ‘Ho this is a mighty twisting’ to ‘as soon as I open my’.

#alismith #art #artist #book #bookreview #conflict #fresco #howtobeboth #review

Restorative Art

A tiny wipe revealed a glimmer of something unexpected. 

Issy dabbed a little more. Usually at this stage in the restoration process things were fairly predictable. Carefully stripping away years of crusted, split varnish brought surprise only at the occasional glimmer of newly uncovered topaz or aquamarine amongst the other murky hues.

Restoration was slow and steady: an indoors archaeology uncovering brush by brush, and dab by dab. 

Issy directed her eyes towards the rain-spattered window and the poster on the wall in front of her weekday worktable. Its message: ‘Life is not about the pursuit of pleasure, but about the pleasure of pursuit’ always resonated.

Eyes refreshed, she looked down at the table again – and all was as she’d left it. The painting still glinted like raindrops on the windowpane, but the glint wasn’t the expected flaky yellowed sheen of aged varnish – it was an inner glow, seeming to originate inside the paint, as if tiny LEDs had been implanted. Of course, she’d seen pictures like that in the local household bargain superstore, but they were generally corny Christmas scenes in which stars glittered festively, and this late nineteenth century portrait wasn’t one of those.

She scratched her head: implanted lights certainly weren’t something she’d encountered before during the 11 years she’d worked at the museum.Puzzled, but not concerned, she opened the window next to her desk, and picked up her bag. She desperately needed air, and, even more desperately, a coffee break.

As she made her way to the door and to the welcome chattering release of the museum’s staff room, her phone summoned her with a gentle harp arpeggio – a ring tone specially assigned to Karen who’d doubtless be asking what time she’d be finished work, so they could meet up for their date. Issy reached for her phone to answer, already excited at the prospect.


‘Issy, are you there?’ said Karen’s voice, the accent a little more midlands than northern. It was a voice that Issy loved, and a voice she longed to communicate with, but each time she tried to pull the phone from her pocket, it evaded her hands. She reached down to it but it appeared she was no longer solid, or was it that the phone was no longer solid?

‘Issy,’ she heard, ‘Issy, come on, love’.

How could she hear Karen without having touched the phone? And why couldn’t she pick it up? She looked around for inspiration but all she could see were those twinkling lights. Even from her position at the door she could still see them lightening and darkening, flickering and falling, like a chaotic Christmas tree. And there was a sound too, like a tiny occasional but quickening beep.

‘She’s there,’ a voice said. A man’s voice this time – rich and bassy. ‘Keep talking, Karen, all the evidence about unconsciousness indicates that she’ll understand everything you say, even if she doesn’t remember it afterwards.’

Unconscious? Issy spoke the words ‘Help me, Karen!’ but silent screams came instead.Her shout was an empty action, devoid of muscular activity, though rich in intended compulsion.

‘Issy, you were in an accident,’ said Karen, hesitantly at first. ‘At work. Do you remember? There was a bomb inside a painting you were restoring. The experts say it’s been there years, just waiting to be triggered. You were so lucky you weren’t next to it at the time, but you have cracked your head pretty badly. The police think the frame must have fallen to the floor in a gust of wind from the open window, and the fall triggered the explosion. But you’re OK, Issy. There’s nothing majorly wrong with you, so you have to wake up. Please…’ Karen’s voice wobbled as she spoke, and her hand which had been holding Issy’s moved further up her arm and began shaking her lightly.

‘Come on, kid, you can do it. It’s me, Karen. You’ve got to come back. You owe me a dinner date. Pizza and Stella – your favourites! And I have an important question to ask you.’

A few minutes of thoughtful silence.

‘Sod it,’ said Karen, ‘I’m asking you now. I’ve been working myself up to this for six months’. She cleared her throat. ‘Issy, will you make me the happiest woman in the world, and agree to be my wife?’Silence. ‘I’ll keep asking, you know. Twice a day every day, if need be.You might as well say yes now.’ Yes, yes, yes, yelled Issy, unheard.

Uncomfortable, the doctor left, soon to be replaced by a student nurse. He was tiny, with a freckled nose and an infectious grin. ‘Would you give us half an hour or so, please? Just to take her to x-ray and do a few tests. Go for a coffee. We’ve got your number and will ring if anything changes.’

‘Coffee? I just had one, but I guess another won’t hurt.’Karen bent over Issy’s unmoving body and laid a gentle kiss on her forehead. Issy sensed the tiniest aroma of coffee on Karen’s breath, and re-remembered the twinkling lights inside the picture. Her hand reached out for coffee. Her eyelid twitched. Her finger flexed. Her fingers clasped, not a coffee cup, but the waist of her partner.

‘Hey,’ said Karen. ‘Hello there. How are you feeling? Do you want some water?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Issy, blinking and squeezing her eyes together. ‘Yes.’

Karen began to move to get the water. ‘No, don’t,’ said Issy.

‘I’m just getting you a drink.’

‘I don’t want a drink. I’m accepting your proposal.’

‘I think you two need to be alone,’ said the nurse as he left the bedside.

‘I think we do,’ said Karen, stroking Issy’s shoulder.

‘Yes,’ said Issy again. ‘And I’d kill for a coffee.’

Ettie’s Art

This is the story of a much beloved child, probably just like you are, or once were. 

She’s interested in everything and everyone.  She likes dancing and shopping and ice-creams and making lots and lots of noise.  But mainly she’s interested in drawing.

Etta wants to be an artist.  She may only be a child but she’s already a good artist… very good.  See, take a look at this.  Its a bird.  Obviously!  And she drew this little bird on her second birthday.  Do you know any other children who can draw birds at that age? 

Etta’s life was pretty similar to everyone else’s and Etta grew a little, then a little more.  And before anyone was really aware that the time had passed, there she was – eight years old!  Eight – can you believe it?  She was tall and strong and was still mad about drawing.  You’d think her friends and family would be pleased.  You’d think she’d be praised for not spending her days in front of the television or computer games.  But she wasn’t, because, by the age of eight, lovely creative Etta had retreated completely into the world of her drawings. 

‘Put that pen down and come and eat your Sunday lunch,’ demanded her grandad.

‘Etta, stop staring at that pad, you need to get ready for school,’ shouted her mum.

‘Ettie, why will you never play with me?  Why are you always drawing, drawing, drawing?’ moaned her little brother, Bobby.

And Ettie couldn’t answer.  Wouldn’t answer.  She just knew that she adored to draw.

If you’d asked her what she cared about most in the whole wide world, your would always get the same answer.  Silence.  Her love didn’t need discussion. 

Even her school teachers were concerned. Etta didn’t play with other children, but instead she drew them and drew the worlds they inhabited.  She was well liked at nursery, but by age eight her friends were beginning to lose patience with her.  There wasn’t much fun to be had with a silent friend who never looked up from her sketchpad.

But one Saturday morning in the middle of the school summer holidays, when Etta was eight years old, things changed.  They changed quite a lot.

Etta was snuggled in bed writing a story to accompany and explain a few of her more complex drawings – of angels and large dogs in cloaks… of a small dragon and a fashion designer who only wore high heeled shoes… and of a growing girl (herself) who seemed to get into more than a few imaginary scrapes. 

‘I wonder,’ thought Etta, ‘if things would be more fun in a world where angels and small dragons and dogs in cloaks really did exist’.  She didn’t think a wish could ever come true, and she didn’t think a wonder would come true either.  Nevertheless, she willed herself to fall asleep and wake up in the strange place of her drawings, inhabited by sketched characters and fantasy inventions.

Etta wondered, and stayed in bed, she drew pictures, she ignored conversation requests, she ate meals, and she thought about getting dressed.

But she didn’t get dressed. Instead, she settled back on her pillow and fell into the most soft and warm drowning-in-marshmallows kind of sleep.

The first thing she noticed when she entered her dreamworld was that it was obviously a dreamworld.  But it wasn’t the world she might have expected.  The world was odd and for a while Etta just couldn’t work out what the problem was. But once she realised it, she was surprised she hadn’t noticed it earlier.  She wasn’t in the world of her drawing, she was in the world behind her drawing.  Her dog in a cloak that she’d drawn with so much care was there around her, but it was in front of her and she, Etta, was sandwiched between the back of her dog, and the front of the paper itself.  It was as if her drawing a shape had brought it to life on another cut-out piece of paper and she was behind it.  How strange.  For, when you cut out a shape from a piece of paper, you’re usually left with a hole, not a flat piece of paper.

Another thing that was strange was the way Etta felt.  She felt kind of squashed.  Flat, in fact. She reached out to touch her face and found it was made of something like paper, only she couldn’t really feel it because she didn’t really seem to have those receptors in her hand.  It was more like she heard it was paper rubbing against paper, rather than her fleshy hand feeling how crispy her face was.  She was entirely made out of paper, that much was obvious, but she wasn’t afraid.  Etta knew this was a dream and know that waking up from dreams brought you back to exactly where you were when you fell asleep.  In fact, it was kind of fun to reach out and touch the green tree with brown trunk that she’d drawn at the side of her picture, and then to get more confident and decide to try and walk towards the unicorn who was protecting the kindly dragon.  Everything was white of background, and Etta vowed she would always colour in her backgrounds from now on.  The brightness of the background was blinding, and Etta immediately felt sorry for the unicorn, who could barely be seen against the background.  She should have coloured the unicorn pale blue, she thought.  But, as she walked towards it, she began to get afraid.

Unicorns were supposed to be gentle and magical and mystical.  But this one (perhaps it was because it was flat) looked a little odd.  With a face a cross between a donkey and a cow, and a body the shape of a guinea pig’s, Etta knew there were some problems with her sketch. She’d been just about to reach for her eraser to rub it out when she’d felt tired and fallen back to sleep. 

The unicorn looked odd, and so did the dragon.  In fact, the dragon’s huge nostrils peeping out from behind the unicorn’s tail, gave its face more of a horse like look than the unicorns.  Etta was finding this disturbing.  She wished she was a better artist, and also wished she had a friend to share it with.  It was lonely in such a flat and peculiarly drawn world.

She woke, to her relief, and went down to the living room where everyone else was watching television. ‘Have you lost your drawing pad?’ asked mum. ‘I’m having a break from it,’ said Ettie.