The structure of Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both”

Sometimes, it is useful to consider the structure of the novel as an integral aspect of its content and meaning. The way that an author structures a novel can have a profound influence on our understanding of the work. This is certainly the case in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both 

Ali Smith and the cover of
Ali Smith and the cover of “How to Be Both”

How to be both is two stories. One set in the early Renaissance and the other set in modern times. In her excellent review Laura Miller points out that the novel was published in two print runs. One with the story of the early Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, coming first followed by the story of the young Georgia, a troubled teenager dealing with the death of her mother. The second print run was in the reverse order with the story of Georgia coming first and the story of del Cossa coming second.

My book had the del Cossa story first, so the question arises “To what extent was my understanding of the second part of the book, the story of Georgia and her mother, coloured by my reading of the first.”

The simple answer is “quite a lot” because in the first section del Cossa describes her life as a painter and, in particular, the painting of the three panels in the frescoed “Room of the Months” of the Palazzo Schifanoia.

Much of this answers many of the questions that Georgia poses about the painter and the frescos and is answered in del Cossa’s narrative. And the painting certainly needs a fair amount of commentary to be understandable to the modern viewer.  Ali Smith, through del Cossa, provides this commentary.

 Francesco del Cossa: March the triumph of Minerva

Francesco del Cossa: March the triumph of Minerva

This narrative is del Cossa’s stream of consciousness reflection on her life as painter. It becomes clear after a while that the painter is dead and has been reincarnated, partly in the 20th century.

The second part involves, inter alia, the visit of Georgia, her brother and mother to see del Cossa’s panels. Much of the discussion that Georgia and her mother have about the panels is coloured by our knowledge of del Cossa’s commentary on the process of painting the frescoes.

Another, and slightly more confusing part of the del Cossa narrative, involves del Cossa’s reincarnation in a “purgatorium”. It is not until we read the second half of the novel that we realise that this purgatorium is the second part of the novel (in the 20th century) and the young girl in del Cossa’s purgatorium is, in fact, Georgia.

But this doesn’t become obvious until you read the second half of the novel.

Because this is a complex and multilayered work, there are many connections between the two stories. But the way these connections work is reflected in the question that Georgia asks her mother when she looks at the frescoes and asks: “Which comes first: the artist’s first draft of the painting or the final one we are looking at?”

She also speculates, quite deceptively, about the gender of the artist

There is also another question underlying this:  To what extent are the history of a work of art and the intentions of the artist separately important to the way we view it some 600 years later ?

Ceorgia’s mother’s response is that the final version, what we can see, comes first. Namely, the most important aspect of a viewer’s response to a work is what they bring to it and what they can take from it, given their modern prospective.

Georgia’s view is the opposite (completely natural given she is a reincarnation of the artist): that the first version of the work comes first and the final version comes last. This is important because we learn from del Cossa’s account that she changed the frescoes in response to the refusal of the patron to pay her more money.

It’s a crucial aspect of the story because all we know about del Cossa is derived from the letter to her patron demanding more money.

And so it is with the novel itself. The question of which part of the novel should come first doesn’t matter. The novel makes perfect sense whichever way you read it. But it also makes a different kind of sense. In this case, the order does have a profound impact on our understanding of the work as a whole.

Our perceptions of the novel will depend on the order in which you read the two halves of the novel. And if we read it twice, in a different order the second time, as I did, then the meaning is different and, to my mind, better.

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