Reading “How to be Both” by Ali Smith

how to be both

What do you think….

  1. In the best modernist tradition Smith’s new novel How to be Both shifts, often seamlessly, between present and past, as a way of foregrounding the artfulness in our artificial perceptions of time.
  2. Smith’s novel is not so much asking what the point of art might be, although this question haunts its pages, as what art may do to transform those who encounter it and those who make it.
  3. Experiences of watching and being watched animate the characters’ lives, so that surveillance in the widest possible sense becomes one of the book’s governing themes.
  4. the novel functions not only as a work of compelling fiction, but also as an audacious act of invented biography, allowing Smith to imagine a story that fleshes out the little that is known of the real Del Cossa’s life.
  5. How to be Both brims with palpable joy, not only at language, literature, and art’s transformative power, but at the messy business of being human, of wanting to be more than one kind of person at once.
  6. With great subtlety and inventiveness, Smith continues to expand the boundaries of the novel.
  7. At its heart, How to Be Both is an eloquent challenge to the binary notions governing our existence. 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?
  8. Could the Francesco section simply be a product of two imaginative teenage minds? The reader is left with the question hanging… It’s a fascinating trick to play. Whether Smith manages to pull it off depends on what kind of reader you are.
  9. sentences like: “down to/that thin-looking line/made of nothing/ground and grit and the/gather of dirt and earth and/the grains of stone…” are undeniably beautiful, so does it matter if you can’t work out what’s happening?
  10. occasionally it felt as if Smith’s ideas were so clever they were in danger of getting in the way of the story.
  11. there is no doubt that Smith is dazzling in her daring. The sheer inventive power of her new novel pulls you through, gasping, to the final page.

I’m not sure how far I would agree with any of the above: Smith has been daring, for which she should be applauded; however, has she been successful? Simply putting two stories together, as many novelists have done, with only a thematic link or a series of common motif s, I always felt to be a bit of a con, but there are enough actual crossovers in this novel to make the two stories clearly part of the one whole, and not have to rely on the imaginative powers (or wishful thinking) of the reader; however, some of these links are pretty feeble and stretch the text’s credibility. Of the two parts separately: I found precocious teen George terribly annoying, and I found that the confusing pieces of the older story rather took away form it as opposed to adding to it. That said, the older story is beautiful in places, and even the modern story has a few things to recommend it. one or two interesting notions are touched upon and not explained to death. So it’s not a bad book. But not a great book either. It falls somewhere in between, kinda like every book published in Britain in the last fifty years.

Mr A


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