“The Place of Green Possibles”: Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

In 1473/4 Francesco del Cossa painted an exquisite Saint Lucy–scarlet and glinting– now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The fair protector of vision is lit up by a flat vermillion ground catching fire under the gilding, an overabundance of embossed gold leaf. Her skin is pale and petal pink, her face framed by an elaborately folded, crisp white collar. The vibrant red, pure pigment, of her sleeves bleeds against the black of her cloak, which is lined in blue and edged with matte gold. The red satin laces at her wrists dangle down, as does the curling satin ribbon that cinches her robe. A few strands of reddish-gold hair have escaped her gossamer ivory veil. She averts her limpid green eyes (like a shy magician). In her right hand she holds a large black palm branch (signifying her victory over the perils of paganism), a dense black gash arcing down the left side of the painting. Her left hand holds, with the most delicate gesture, a slender plucked sprig, its two buds open as a pair of light brown eyes. Saint Lucy, one of the holy virgin martyrs, was tortured by having her eyes violently gouged from her head. It is standard practice for Renaissance painters to depict them as two detached marbles rolling on a platter or as odd orbs held out in the palm of her hand. Here, rather than being deprived of her vision, it seems as though she’s been granted a second, enchanted pair of eyes; the nearly not-there differentiation of their color suggests that she now possesses two manners of sight. In this doubling, Francesco del Cossa–as in much of his work–performs a small iconographic subversion. A line drawing of this curious supplemental flowering opens Franchesco’s story in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both. While this particular painting receives only a passing glance in the book, it establishes the novel’s primary theme involving many modes of vision and the pleasures and pains of seeing and being seen.


I’ve had it both ways, so to speak. Ali Smith, an exceedingly generous writer, offers two ways to read How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014). The clever conceit of the novel* is that its halves (George/Franchesco) create the effect of two detailed portraits drawn on sheets of translucent paper laid one atop the other. The twined tales of the principle characters are like two ribbons running along the span of lives and centuries, tangled into many anachronistic knots. As Franchesco puts it: I like a twist of yarn, 2 strands twisted together for strength. (On the narrative level there is also a whole lot of twisting going on). The publishers printed two versions of How to Be Both resulting in two possible hinged diptychs – Franchesco/George or George/Franchesco. Which of the two any given reader picks up in a bookshop is left up to chance, determining whether the storyline leads from the Renaissance past to the present or from present to past, with cross-references aimed forward or back in time. As a result, one portrait or the other functions as an under-drawing for the second. The specificities of distinct media (the contemporary novel and Renaissance fresco painting) are purposefully muddled. Smith’s book plays with the ways that linear sequentiality and planar simultaneity function differently in relation to narrative, remembering/forgetting, and time. Mnemosyne is the novel’s presiding Titan.


On first go, I read Franchesco’s story followed by George’s. About a year later I read them the other way around. Speaking in first person, Franchesco voices a stream of consciousness that’s more like a river. The result is a “writerly” text, to use Roland Barthes’ term. It requires an active reader, grappling with bouts of disorientation. The narrative is legible through a frothy onslaught of words and witticism. Style tends to upstage story. In contrast, George’s third person narrative is straightforward. It is “readerly,” more conventionally told and with far less display of formal finesse. Read in second position, it feels a bit thin. That perhaps has something to do with having met the exuberant Franchesco first (and with my penchant for purple prose). On second reading, perceptions shifted; encountering George in the lead position seemed to offer just the right setup for Franchesco’s bombastic entrance. Reading George’s section first revealed a few hints that Franchesco’s mad dash of a biography might be the figment (based in art historical fact) of George’s liberal elaboration. He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague. 


The current in Franchesco’s half of the book is swift–but as fast as you can go is best for fresco in any case. Ali Smith, too, fillips along at a dazzling clip. Hearing her read breathlessly from How to Be Both, being drawn along in the slipstream of her prose, is a thrill. Franchesco’s section begins this way: Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook if a fish could be fished through a 6 foot wall made of bricks or an arrow if an arrow could fly in a leisurely curl like the coil of a snail or a star with a tail if the star was shot upwards past maggots and worms and the bones and the rockwork… I relished Smith’s rollicking ribaldry. Franchesco’s story begins with the catching of fish while being watched from a high wall by the Barto, soon to become a lifelong friend (and the writer speculates, the subject of the somber Portrait of a Man with a Ring, circa 1475). The faithful Barto is painted primarily in reserved tones of gray and black. His head is framed by mountains in the far distance that are painted glacial blue, a color carefully and lovingly chosen. He extends the gold ring beyond the picture’s framing edge–with apparent longing in his steady gaze—toward Franchesco).


Much later Francesco becomes the startled fish in the opening passage quoted above, yanked from the grave to arrive in Gallery 55 in the National Gallery in London, standing unseen and unheard beside George in 2014. Upon his abrupt and disconcerting arrival, Franchesco runs smack into his rival, the painter Cosimo Tura: dear God dear Motherfather did I come the hard way back through the wall of the earth the stratifications of rocks and the soil the worms the crusts of the stars and the gods the vicissitudes and the histories the broke bits of forgettings and rememberings all the long road from gone to here – for Cosmo to be almost the first thing as soon as I open my… The painter turns a bit green, but is almost immediately relieved to see that George pays no attention to Cosimo Tura but stands so transfixed in front of Franchesco’s painting as to make the others fall away. That painting depicts the Spanish saint, Vincenzo Ferrer, patron of wallmakers and housebuilders. It was made in tribute to Franchesco’s father, a mason: the Christ floating above the saint–depicted as blasphemously far past the age of 33–bears the resemblance of the kind man. Later it’s revealed that Franchesco was the favorite painter of Carol, George’s mother. George visits the work daily in order to maintain a tenuous thread of connection to her. The two stories begin to ravel together. From this point on, Franchesco realizes that the displacement in time has purpose: for some reason to shadow George. Franchesco is, indeed, like a 15th-century fish out of water, mistaking George’s iPad for a votive tablet. (He’s not far off the mark).


In the words of the effusive biographer in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (clearly Smith’s model for How to Be Both): “We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to make use of the imagination.” The character of Franchesco is based on the historical painter Francesco del Cossa, son of the stonemason Cristofano del Cossa in Ferrara, nearly lost to history but for a scrap from an archive and a bit of chipped whitewash. Virtually no suggestions exist (other than speculative feminist readings of the paintings advanced in the novel) that Francesco del Cossa was female. But neither is there evidence that would refute that possibility. In Ali Smith’s hands, the dearth of biographical fact becomes the bounty of fiction.


What we do know about Francesco del Cossa is that he lived between 1435/6 and 1477/8. He died young at an age near 40, likely of the plague. He is best know for the frescoes in the Hall of Months in Duke Borso of Ferrara’s Palazzo Schifanoia (the palace built to banish boredom). They, however, remained covered in whitewash through centuries after the fall of the Estes. Around 1840 the whitewash began to flake, revealing the colors underneath. But the revealed paintings were first attributed to none other than Cosimo Tura (the archrival mentioned above). As yet there existed no painter named Francesco del Cossa because Giorgio Vasari confused him with a painter named Lorenzo Costa in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550). Francesco was only retrieved from historical amnesia when historian Adolfo Venturi found, in the 1880s, a letter that Francesco del Cossa had written to his employer, the Duke, asking to be paid his worth: “it would seem to me passing strange that my work, done on trust as I have done it, and my adorning it with gold and good colours, should be deemed of the same price as certain parts of the others which have been executed without such labour and expense.” At the bottom of the page, the Duke penned flatly, “pay him the same as everyone else.” Rebuffed, it seems plausible that Francesco would have added a few subversive touches to the frescoes before leaving as quickly as possible for Bologna.


In How to Be Both, Francesco reappears with an H added to his name, becoming Franchesco, reimagined and sex-shifted. That supplementary H marks the space between the rescued facts of a scant biography and–in Smith’s hands–the leaps of fiction. George has her own H, her friend Helena, who appears at just the right moment as a love-stricken plot twister. She needs to be more…a bit more hands-on than hypothetical. It’s H (with help from Franchesco) who patiently manages to melt George’s grief.


The UK first edition cover of How to Be Both features a photograph of 1960s French pop stars Sylvie Vartan (the “twisting schoolgirl” whom George apparently resembles) and Françoise Hardy (a stand-in for George’s friend H). When Franchesco, from her post in purgatory, sees a photo of the young women hanging on George’s wall, she describes it with a keen painter’s eye in a passage capturing the growing friendship and first blushes of love: a picture of 2 beautiful girls seen walking along like friends do: one has gold hair, one has dark but the dark of her hair is sunlit to lightness—both the heads of the girls are: they are walking along a street with awnings: it’s a warm place: their clothes are mosaic gold and azzurrite: the girls are in conversational commerce and look as if between sentences: the goldener one is preoccupied: the darker headed girl turns her head toward her in a most natural gesture in open air and so she can see the other better: her looking has about it politeness, humility, respect, a kind of gentle intent.xOrlando Leonard

Although Smith doesn’t go as far as Jeannette Winterson does in Written on the Body to eschew gender pronouns altogether, Smith delays gender identification for the two main characters for as long as possible. Upon first sight, Franchesco assumes George to be a boy; George imagines Franchesco a girl with bound breasts who, through a series of artful dodges, manages to gain access to an apprenticeship, then work, in the painters’ trade. For both characters, sexuality is in the process of sorting itself out. They come to recognize what Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, that “it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be a woman manly or a man womanly.” It’s evident that in her richly crafted prose, in her notion of self as teaming multitude, and in her insistence that gender is fluid, Ali Smith is an exemplary Woolf scholar. How to Be Both resembles nothing so much as Woolf’s Orlando (1928), the fictional biography that is a thinly disguised love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Staged photographs, some in the style of Woolf’s great aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, illustrate the novel. The one above, showing Vita as Orlando, was taken by Woolf’s husband Leonard. The novel follows Orlando, from his birth through her life, from the 16th century to 1928. Franchesco’s voice, with its material sensuality, might as well be that of Orlando’s prolix narrator: But art and love are a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding, of understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other…


From her post in purgatory, Franchesco recognizes George’s numbing sadness. It is implied that Franchesco is an assuaging spirit sent by George’s mother (just the sort of stunt she’d pull), to help her to see how the past lives on in the present, that what cannot not be seen nevertheless exists. Franchesco: Girl: do you hear me? cause although it seemed to be the end of the world to me–it wasn’t. George’s half of the book begins on a whim inspired by a reproduction in an art magazine, a detail of one of Franchesco del Cossa’s frescoes. Enraptured by it, Carol Martineau–her name perhaps a reference to the 19th-century women’s rights activist Harriet Martineau–takes her children, George and her younger brother Henry from Cambridge to Ferrara. To George the city smells of jasmine, then more jasmine, then the occasional sewer, then jasmine again. Just months later Carol dies senselessly at the age of 50. Franchesco, like George, lost her mother at a young age. For each motherless heroine art clears the path through heartbreak.

Smith gets at the aching nature of grief with moving precision. Upon the loss of her mother, Franchesco wore nothing but her oversized clothes: I went deep in the smell and became myself nothing but fabric that’d once been next to her skin. Seeing a vulgar advertisement on TV, George wonders How can that advert exist and her mother not exist in the world? Among the many quiet reverberations between the two halves of the book, Franchesco ponders how the faintest lightest nearly not-there charcoal line can conjure a spring that splits open a rock. George observes her young brother and that devastating nearly not-there rift in time, that small temporal aftershock: Henry wakes up. His mother is dead too. She sees the knowledge cross his face about three seconds after he opens his eyes. George’s father drinks excessively to maintain a state that he likens to wearing a whole fat woolly sheep between me and the world. George vows to watch daily a pornographic video of a very young girl drugged and exploited by an older, depraved man as a means of bearing witness to another’s pain, as a means of feeling her own pain.

Ali Smith made a pointed choice of casting George as a young adult. She regards that age to be, in her phrasing, the place of green possibles. Here’s an extended passage from the interview noted above in which she discusses this (without taking a breath): “People do like my teenagers and I think it’s because we’re living in a teenage time…a time in which we haven’t surpassed our 17-year-old selves…the teenagers are particularly interesting to us now, culturally, because they are between codification–it’s coming at them, it’s coming for them, the thing which you’re supposed to be–and freedom and openness…The teenage self is a fluid self. You can see it in a book, which I love, Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, which has to be one of the most political of novels I have ever read. It’s all about color and fixity and it starts with repetition of the word ‘green,’ which comes to a kind of illness or sickness. Color, again, it’s all about color, stratification in the States of who gets to have power and who doesn’t. And the word ‘queer’. You have this point of what does queer mean? Or the things it supposed to mean, it can’t mean–so I’ll make it mean something else. So you have this constant argument in that character who is coming to teenage years and is about to be flattened by them. Of massive voice, of massive understanding, yet here comes the thing–she’s looking at it–here comes the chopper to chop off her head. So it’s a questioning point and it’s a morally questioning place, as well, the teenage years. As a child things are very clear morally: that’s right, that’s wrong. It’s very clear to see. As a teenager, you begin to understand the gray area and at the same time don’t. As adults, we’ve moved into whatever it is, the shape we’re supposed to take, the narrative, the third person. So I think I’m drawn to a constant revelation about us, and our time and the time we’re living in. Ask a teenager, they’ll tell you what it’s like. And at the same time they’ll be doing all this. Immense versatility.”

Whereas rich and condensed prose characterizes Franchesco’s story, George’s half is cleanly plotted and moderately paced. It is firmly located in the 21st century and is preceded by the line drawing of a surveillance camera. It begins with a line spoken to George by her mother: Consider this moral conundrum for a moment. The conundrum is presumably how to inhabit opposing categories simultaneously–boy and girl, past and present, fact and fiction, visible and invisible, life and death. For the author, there’s an additional, formal conundrum: how might a novel moving forward in time be modeled on fresco painting standing still, as a plane of accreted moments.


Smith does an admirable job of getting us into the mind of a sad, sardonic teenager longing to be seen. George’s mother was a child of the 1960s and references from that decade are strewn through the story. George’s pursuit of them becomes a means of holding onto her mother. One of the most poignant allusions is to L’avventura (1960), a film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (born in Ferrara) with a plot that involves, almost entirely, the search by friends for a young woman who vanished suddenly. Her disappearance defies explanation. She simply goes from here to gone.


George looks up another of her mother’s favorite directors, the public intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, and finds photo documentation of an artwork done shortly before the director’s mysterious murder. The piece, Intellettuale (1975) by Fabio Mauri features Pasolini seated, backlit to become a solid black silhouette, with his stark white shirt serving as a projection screen for his film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964). George wonders apropos of Franchesco: …imagine if you made something and then you always had to be seen through what you’d made, as if the thing you’d made became you. Mauri said later of Pasolini’s work: “The author disappeared; the artwork is equally eloquent.” No surprise that the most gorgeous line in the novel is, of course, spoken by the nearly not-there Franchesco about mortality: …we go out anonymous into the insect air and all we are is the dust of colour, brief engineering of wings towards a glint of light on a blade of grass or a leaf in summer dark.


*Smith is not the first to add an aleatory element to a novel by manipulating the way the work is published. The most ambitious example is Tristano by Nanni Balestrini, based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, a story of love and heartbreak, told and retold through centuries in countless variations. Balestrini’s version, with its interchangeable lines and paragraphs, holds 109,027,350,432,00 possible iterations randomized by algorithm. Due to the limitations of standard printing, the book was originally published in Italian in 1966 as a single fixed narrative. Digital technology has since made it possible to achieve his intention. The English translation of the novel (Verso, 2014) is being released in unique editions, each numbered, and each offering a distinct reading experience. My copy is #10055 and just happens to end with the lines: The sky is blue. The horizon to the north is clear. No regrets or useless sentimentalism. Not bad. Depending on your preference for either “readerly” or “writerly” texts, Tristano might involve a potentially migraine-inducing struggle to piece a story together (an experience made even more confounding by the fact that both main characters are named “C”). Ali Smith’s trick, for better or worse, is that she plays slyly with form but manages to end up with one delightfully readable story–or two.