All the stories within

Dear Ali,

If you remove a fresco, you see the drawing underneath, like a story within another story. Your new novel, How to be both, resembles a painting, both Renaissance and contemporary, that centers around two interconnected stories: there is a teenage English girl called George, whose mother has recently died; and then there is a young Italian renaissance artist, Francesco Del Cossa, author of a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. Their separate narratives are rendered in two parts, kept tightly together by the fact that Francesco Del Cossa was George’s mother’s favourite artist. Although presented in parallel, the two narratives twist around each other: past and present merge, characters collide, duality is everywhere.

In a flashback scene, during a visit to Italy, George’s mother muses about how art restorers sometimes find, underneath a painting, drawings that differ significantly from the final painted frescoes. “Which came first?” she asks her daughter. “But the first thing we see, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all?”

We can also ask which story comes first in this book. Since half of the copies were printed with George’s part of the narrative first, the textual order and the way in which the reader will experience the novel will depend on an element of chance: the reader will either be presented with George’s story first or with Francesco’s. There is, literally, more than one way to read this novel: either randomly or by choice, we can read the two narratives in different orders. In both cases, we will be confronted with a different drawing underneath the original fresco: a layering of experiences that, although separated by time, happen simultaneously.

In Francesco’s part, narrated in first person by himself, we are presented to Del Cossa’s disembodied spirit. It finds itself, invisible and inaudible, in a museum gallery, staring at the back of a boy looking at a painting which is the work of the spirit itself. As it happens, the “boy”, as perceived by the spirit, is actually George: “the best thing about a turned back,” says the painter’s spirit, “is the face you can’t see stays a secret.” Born a girl, Del Cossa, as imagined by Smith, was raised in disguise by her father: in Renaissance Italy, only as a “man” this girl would be able to fulfill her painting talent.

Just as your Del Cossa is both male (his public identity) and female (his secret identity), the painter’s part of the story comes both before and after George’s narrative. At the same time as he is telling us about his life, the death of his mother and his formative years (which chronologically happens before George’s life), he is a spirit in modern day England watching George, as the girl looks at the artist’s portrait of Saint Vincent Ferrer, in Room 55 of London’s National Gallery (which happens after the story we will be told about George). A drawing within a drawing.

George’s part is told in third person and indirect speech, but from the girl’s perspective. It takes place a few months after her mother’s sudden death. The girl and her friend H have to write a school project on the topic of “empathy”, and they decide to do it in the voice of Francesco Del Cossa, reimagining his life. In George’s mourning for her mother, past and present can never be either forgotten or recovered: they are both elusive, build in layers that blend with each other. Past and present are both always there and completely gone. How can someone so loved simply cease to exist? “Do things just go away? (…) Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can’t see them happening in front of us?”, asks George’s mother to her daughter, during their visit to Italy. Can the drawing underneath a fresco be said to exist, even if it was never seen by anyone?

Duality is one the book’s governing theme, and manifests itself, throughout the novel, in the experiences of watching and being watched, and the erotic charge of knowing one is being watched. Both experiences (as well as the writing/reading one) are never static nor passive: they happen simultaneously and alter those on both sides of the act, which also enacts art’s transformative power.

So we are confronted with a story about a Renaissance painter who is watching a modern-age girl – who, in turn, is watching one of his paintings. We have also a story about a teenager writing about a Renaissance painter – who, in turn, is talking, among other things, about the teenager. Could the Francesco section be a product of George’s mind? Is George reinventing Francesco as a girl (who also mourns for a death in the family) as as a way of processing her own grief about her mother’s death? Which one is real: the fresco, the drawing underneath, or both?

You play with multiple-natured and doubling motifs: language puns, grammar and word games, jumps in time, irony, the human desire to be more than one kind of person at once. In your textual hall of mirrors, we are confronted with a ceaseless examining of where the boundary lies between past and present, invention and reality, reading and writing, watching and being watched. Dead and living coexist, their stories intertwine. In remembering, George brings her mother to life; in looking at a painting or writing a story, she also brings Del Cossa to life. In watching George at the gallery, the painter brings the girl’s pain to the surface, and mingles with it. In reading both sections of the book, we are left with some questions: which one is the fresco, and which one is the drawing underneath? Which one comes first? Does this question make any sense?

Androgyny and gender identity are also at the core of the novel. On watching George in the gallery, Del Cossa mistakes her for a boy; George is interested in the absence of female painters during the Renaissance; your Francesco is born a girl but lives as a man; George is a girl (with a boy’s name) whose sexuality is being explored; when George and her mother look at Del Cossa’s frescoes, back in Italy, they cannot tell who is male and who is female (and they finally decide it is not important).

It seems you want to have it both ways: to play by the rules and to bend those rules as far as they go without loosing meaning. Your fragmentary narration questions our artificial perceptions of time, and fits into the modernist tradition, ironically, by making an original use of a premodern art form: the allegory, a technique that, by conveying hidden meanings and complex ideas through symbolic figures, in ways more comprehensible to its readers/viewers, has the layered quality of being both.

The writing is inventive, playful, daring, at times poetic (“down to/that thin-looking line/made of nothing/ground and grit and the/gather of dirt and earth and/the grains of stone…”). It enacts the fact that different arrangements of the same story can change our understanding of it, as well as our emotional attachments.

While looking at a Del Cossa’s painting, during her visit to Italy with her mother, George is struck by how “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 that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.” This might also be a good way not only of looking at a Renaissance painting, as well as a way of reading this novel. By writing in layers, you refuse to flatten what in fact is a contradictory, fragmented reality. We, as readers, are asked to question our assumptions: “ ’Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves,” remarks del Cossa.

“What’s the point of art?” asks George. This question haunts the pages of your novel, and is closely related to the question on how art can transform those who confront it; how the observer understands the observed; and how the subject affects the object. As Del Cossa, in his paintings, learns how to render “things far away and close [so they] could be held together, in the same picture”, your novel tries to enact the layered (and never simple) ways in which every element on a page (as well as the reader and the writer) are connected and made alive and dynamic (“to be/ made/ and unmade/ both”) by their relationship with each other: “it’s a picture, which means the flowers can’t die.” 

Yours truly,


“Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all of the lines of text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.”

— Ali Smith, How to be both

“Finally she lets herself think about how it feels:
to be so frightened that you almost can’t breathe
to speed so fast and be so completely out of control
to know the meaning of helplessness
to spin across a shining space knowing any moment you might end up hurt, but likewise, all the same, like plus wise you just might not.”

— Ali Smith, How to be both

“And which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?”

— Ali Smith, How to be both

“(and from looking at whose works I learned
the open mouths of horses,
the rise of light in landscape,
the serious nature of lightness,
and how to tell a story, but tell it more than one
way at once, and tell another underneath it
up-rising through the skin of it) –
I would paint my own walls.”

— Ali Smith, How to be both

“So always risk your skin, she said, and never fear losing it, cause it always does some good one way or another when the powers that be deign to take it off us.”

— Ali Smith, How to be both

here come all the memories complete with all their forgettings.”

— Ali Smith, How to be both

Francesco Del Cossa. "I tre decani con il segno zodiacale dell'Ariete".

Francesco Del Cossa. “I tre decani con il segno zodiacale dell’Ariete”.

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