Tag: conflict

‘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

Raised by Wolves

Can you imagine the humiliation?  I, with fur of gold, am the majestic king of the beasts, a lion cub who at only three days old, was discovered and rescued by this shabby wolf pack: the pack that raised me as their own. 

It might have been more of a kindness to leave me to starve?  A lion cub clearly born to better things?  A lion cub strong, keen, skilled of sight and hunt?  Perhaps they should have left me. These canines understand nothing. 

When I view conflict they see only play.  When I view opportunities for dominance and mating practice, they again see only play.  When I stalk prey animals, their strong, ripe bodies inviting my pulling them down to the ground with my powerful jaws, the wolf pack, unless ravenous, see yet another play mate.  Undoubtedly this wolf pack is a collection of ludicrous imbeciles.

A dark furred canine crouches, watching me and pouting a little.  She wags her tail then rises and does her usual thing of bouncing over to lick my face.  I remain still as she does so.  The last time she did that I bit her by accident, and she still bears the scars.

I allow her to continue licking, and keep my own instincts at bay.  Another pads over, breathlessly to join in and the two lick my face in welcome and love.  Every part of me wants to rebel, to move away and to roar at them both, then to pounce and rip them to shreds with my teeth, tearing the fur from their bodies and devouring the juicy flesh lying beneath.  But I breathe deeply, controlling those impulses, and stare instead at another wolf, who is rolling in the clay mud to change his colour from dark to orange.

He’s a wise one.  One who is clever enough to watch and to learn.  Clever enough to change, and to experiment.  He’s not like the others.  I gently push the still-licking wolves from my face, placating them with a friendly growl, and swagger over to the wise one.

I see the licking-wolves’ disappointment, and I sense their rejection too.  But it matters not at all.   The wise one is like me.  I know he is.  I’ve been watching him a lot.  Watching him in groups where he remains silent yet still dominates.  I’ve seen him alone practising skills of fight and flight and might.  And I’ve watched at night while the others are sleeping, when he prowls round the den seeking adversaries, challenges and enemies.  I sense.  I know.  He is my adversary.  And now is our first time of conflict. 

I circle him and he circles back.  We move in a curious dance of domination, and what he lacks in size, he will make up for in cunning. I am sure of that. 

I pace then change direction.  He mirrors my movements, both of us reticent and unwilling to show our colours yet.  We weigh each other up.  He snarls at me, baring his teeth, but his aggression barely registers as a threat.  I snarl back, my own sound sonorous and strong, echoing throughout the valley.  He backs off a little.  I am winning, I think, I am winning.  I have that canine under my spell. 

But then he pounces, this brave and stupid wolf, and sinks his teeth where my right shoulder meets my neck.  His firm hold and locked jaws mean that by the time I can shake him off, he has already ripped through my skin.  He will pay for that, be sure of it.  Blood dripping onto the ground, the other canines come to smell, but I pounce back at my aggressor and fall while the pack circle round me.  Some entice me to stop by licking my paws and eyes and cleaning the wound.  Others circle the wise dog, whining in supplication.  Our future unsure, our lives paused. 
From the silence, a sudden howl throngs through our valley: a canine howl, intense and high pitched.  I have much to learn, but the howls sounds as if determinedly telling us of a pack member in danger.  All animosities in abeyance for now, we move as one to the site of the howl. 

An injured friend?  A kill?  No.  Humans – bearing leads and collars. 

Dogs with wagging tails and pendulous tongues, run towards their masters, no longer wild wolves, no longer hunters acting on instinct.  Now they’re trained and controlled and owned.

And I am no longer king of anyone’s jungle, in reality I am a tabby kitten who has grown up in this house positioned next to the playing fields.  And I’m a kitten who is always imagining new stories, and play fighting with my canine buddies. 

The regular dog walking crowd walk away, their canines attached to them now by strips of leather, chain or rope, and I slope off back home watching the dogs wag tails inanely at their human owners.  I shrug, because I know that through my own cat flap will be a bowl of biscuits and I also smell fresh tuna… and after I’ll consider spending time in that warm fuzzy bed in front of the fire, and with my own loving owner, who’s just waiting to spend time with me.

#conflict #fiction #lion #pack #wolf

I Hate His Face

I woke early – as was usual. Nowadays I’m always late to bed and early to rise, with the result that my days pass in a stupor of drowsy anxious tension. I have one problem that is keeping me awake: my little girl. So shy and fearful of groups of others.  Her age-peers regularly attend groups (cubs or scouts, after-school clubs), but Bethany doesn’t.  Bethany won’t. I’m lucky if I can get her to school.

She does possess an uncanny ability to make friends, but it doesn’t last long.  Within a week or two of meeting ‘best person in the world’ this new friend will reveal a single character flaw and is speedily outlawed and only (very) occasionally allowed back into Bethany’s clique of one. 
The whole friends thing is therefore fraught.  She doesn’t feel it, but I do, and it’s making me reluctant to allow her to become involved with other children, on the few occasions she requests for it to happen.  I lie in bed considering what will happen when Bethany’s inevitable friendship meltdown occurs?  And then what will happen to me?  I’ve often become friendly with the mothers of her friends, and feel it is my responsibility to smooth things over?  But I can’t always manage it, and friends are lost.

At any second even the most beautiful friendship could fail.  At any second she could switch a label from ‘best mate’ to ‘acquaintance’.  Does this come after long periods of simmering?  I don’t know, but suspect that sometimes there is not even a period of irritation beforehand – things just happen, just like that. 

For instance, it happened with her best friend – her ex-best friend.  Ben’s a sweet boy, a few months younger than Bethany, and they were thrown together in their small school.  The relationship grew gradually and gently over months till it was decided that they were ‘best friends’ and that they would play together regularly at each other’s houses.  Suddenly, after a number of months of seemingly innocent and sweet getting-on-with-each-other, a time where they seemed as close as could possibly be imaginable, my daughter suddenly piped up with ‘I can’t stand his face’.  What was I, as her mum, supposed to do or say?  I asked questions in the attempt to discover if she was experiencing physical dislike or perhaps a dislike of one of Ben’s particular expressions.

But irrational feelings can’t and aren’t explained away by anything that either parent or child can put a label on.  So, as a loving parent, you ask and you delve a little further.  You try to discover the reasons so you can help to put things right.  Or more right.

The conversation probably went something like this:

Bethany: I don’t want to see him anymore.  I can’t stand his face.
Me:  That was unexpected, Bethie, and it isn’t a good thing to say about a friend.  What do you mean?
Bethany: I hate his face.
Me: Hate and can’t stand are two ways of saying practically the same thing.  Can you tell me why you hate his face?
Bethany: Because it is horrible.
Me: In what way?
Bethany: Horrible.
Me:  Is it something to do with his features, or the shape of his face, or the colour of his eyes?  Or is it more to do with how he uses his face and puts it into different expressions?
Bethany: How am I supposed to know that?
Me: You’ve probably got a better idea than I have.
Bethany:  No I haven’t.
Me: When did you notice that you don’t like his face?
Bethany: I hate his face.
Me: When?
Bethany: When what?
Me: When did you first notice that you hate his face?
Bethany: Always.
Me: Do you know why?
Bethany: Yes.
Me: Can you tell me?
Bethany: Yes.
Me: So…
Bethany: Because it is horrible.

And so on and so on and so on.  In fact, we had a similar conversation over a number of days while I simultaneously tried to comfort poor Ben and explain things as best I could (without telling him the ‘face’ thing), and then to try and placate his mum, and to go about the every day events of normal life. 

Ben was devastated.  From full-on-mate to Beth-can-barely-look-at-you – all in the space of a day.  Poor kid. How on earth was he supposed to accept it speedily and get on with life.  Especially as there had been no falling out and no obvious conflict.

Some weeks later, we’d given up discussing the situation and Bethany volunteered the following information.  ‘I don’t like his face, mum, but I do like him.’  OK.  Progress, of sorts.  Then, the following day – ‘I think I don’t like that expression.  Do you know the one I mean?  The expression that says he’s not happy or bored or something’.  I didn’t know the expression he meant.  After all, unhappy, bored or ‘something’ presumably all had their own facial expression.  But I was getting something, and Beth was getting somewhere too.  She had massively analysed her own response and had eventually narrowed down the response to the undeniable fact that she didn’t like some of her friend’s more negative expressions.  It was a start.

I tried to take photographs of people’s expressions, including my own.  I asked her how she felt about the people and the shape their faces took on.  It was becoming clearer that the expressions she could not accept were many.  Patronising faces from adults.  Angry face in the mirror.  Disapproving faces from teachers.  Overly eager faces from peers in the playground, determined to get her to participate in some hated sporting activity.  Disappointed faces from spurned kids.

And it became clear to me that the problem existed because things were not clear to her.  Beth appeared to see all the faces in the same way.   Unless a person was actively smiling at her, the said person’s expression was perceived as negative and critical.  And, this led to further realisations – the fact that smile=good and non-smile=bad, meant that all variations of the smile were open to extreme misinterpretation too. 
Sarcastic smiles were missed and so were cheeky smiles, smug smiles, apprehensive smiles, questioning smiles, enthusiastic smiles… the list goes on. 

So, we got to the crux of the matter.  She was unhappy about spending time with Ben, not because of Ben’s actions, but because she was getting confused and upset by Ben’s facial expressions.  Perhaps his expressions belied his friend’s actions or words, and the complexity of this constructed facade was simply too much for Beth.  She preferred the conflict of moving away from the situation and being on her own. That was preferable to being with someone he was skill-less to interpret.

So, that’s one way that Beth deals with conflict, by heading it off, quietly and without explanation, before it has even started.  However, the other side is far harder to deal with.

We’re not talking about violence, not yet, and not extreme violence, but we are talking about frustrated aggression, and I think there’s a difference.  

I’ve seen her lash out many times – on herself and others. One day she came up the path from school with two equal sized scratches down the sides of her face, in the temple area.  On investigation I found out that her own overly long nails had created then.  In frustration regarding her annoying classmate, she’d sat and gouged out two long scratches in her head.  They’re still there now – scarred for life, and she says she doesn’t care.  Does she?  Is this self-harm side of her nature as scary and as out of control as it seems? She will regularly hurt herself to ‘relieve’ frustration, and will very often say that she feels no pain from physical hurts – only from emotional ones. 

The frustration is sometimes from her relationships with others but quite often about frustration with herself.  It isn’t that she can’t deal with conflict, it is more that the conflict gets her out of her usual routines and patterns, and that’s what she doesn’t like.

For example, in the summer term at junior school, they do a lot of non-curriculum based activities, ranging from sports day to cookery day, dress in a uniform day, bike skills etc.  It’s true to say that most kids love this.  Most of the kids have a ball and delight in being released from normal lessons. But Beth would far prefer keep to routine and to the predictability of lessons in numeracy and literacy.  That suits her.  Sitting around in a field for sports day in which she refuses to participate, does not.  Getting lines following sitting round in a field and subsequently ‘misbehaving’, also does not suit her – and leads to enormous amounts of anger.  She’s a little kid but is also quite deep and feels injustices deeply.  She feels them angrily too, but rarely expresses them properly, and on the few occasions she manages to say what she feels, is told off.

Here’s one example. It is a normal school play time.  Beth likes climbing and makes use of the facilities within the school, of which there are very few.  She also likes the idea of free running and the like, and will regularly jump onto things, climb around, and jump off, all very elegantly.  On this one occasion she jumped onto the school’s grit bin.  It is strong enough to take the weight of even the largest child at the school and she is a long way off being that, being of quite slender build, though tall.  Basically, she was doing no harm, but was told, when she was perched on top of the grit bin, that being on the bin was against school rules.  She was told to get down and told the teacher she would jump off in a minute.  The teacher insisted she get down straight away.  Beth said no I want to jump, so the teacher pulled her down and told her off for being cheeky.  Later, after the tears and sullenness had subsided, the teacher reappeared to Beth, by now shrivelled on her own in a hidden corner of the playground, to reiterate her ‘lesson’. That was the worst thing anyone could have done to her then.  As I’ve probably already said, she’s a child who requires recovery time, and only after that are you able to deal with the issue. 

She reiterated her ‘lesson’ and said, ‘You’ve learnt your lesson haven’t you?  You’re not going to jump on the grit bin any more, are you?’  She stared at her with her pale, blank, absent-looking face and said, ‘I don’t know.  I like climbing on it.  I don’t know if I will jump on it but I will probably climb on it.  Who can say what I will do in the future?’  To Beth, this was honesty tied up with sadness and upset.  To the teacher this was cheek of the most extreme nature.

Poor kid was in even more trouble for that one, and she didn’t deal with the conflict at all well.  In fact, she dealt with it extremely badly.  She refused to work for this teacher for a number of days afterwards, despite her teaching assistants using all available tools in their repertoire to encourage her application.  She’s an intelligent and articulate kid who is regularly reduced to a zombie by her inability to deal with conflict and by her teacher’s inability to deal with pragmatic and pedantic honesty. 

Other forms of conflict are more straightforward.  Like when Beth lashes out at other children who use humour and teasing in a way that she doesn’t understand, or when another child’s facial expression doesn’t tally with her words or actions, and Beth’s confusion makes everything twisted. She’s been known to hit, pull hair, and lash out verbally.

But her main way of dealing with conflict is via the duvet.  She will sit in front of the television, wrapped in a duvet in all weathers. She will take it into the car when allowed, she will sit, completely naked apart from the duvet, in the garden on a summer day, and she will also use it as a form of expression.  She will hide under it when unhappy and feel safe only when talking from underneath its feathery layers.

And, though it’s very much like burying one’s head in the sand, I find myself understanding. Why not? Why not bury and try to escape? When the alternative is aggression and pain, I totally understand.