How to Be Both
Could a respected Renaissance court painter from 15th-century Italy have been a woman? Certainly the chances are slim, but in Ali Smith’s new book, How to Be Both (a finalist for the Man Booker Prize), the artist “Francescho” del Cossa was born a female and has returned to Earth in spirit form in the present day to watch over a troubled teenage girl. The book, which is divided into halves and has two protagonists, was printed randomly to make either part come first or second, depending on the copy you read. Francescho, one of the protagonists and a narrator, switches us back and forth between the 1400s of her lifetime and the present. The other protagonist is whip-smart Georgia, aka George, a precocious British sixteen-year-old whose mother has died suddenly from an unexpected illness.
Despite its title, How to Be Both asks more questions than it answers, exploring the nature of gender, sexuality, and, most of all, death. Its Scottish author, who is openly gay, once said, “My whole career has been about what women do and how we do it and how important it is that we listen to it.” In this book, Smith’s female characters exhibit incredible moxie and strength, but most of all, they’re warm and relatable and wonderfully human.
The version of the book I read begins with Francescho, whose decision to disguise herself as a man has its start when she’s a very young child and discovers that her love for creating art will not easily translate into a career in the maledominated Italian art world. Francescho describes shooting up through the earth’s crust, past maggots and roots, to be deposited into an unassuming anteroom in London’s National Gallery. Our immediately likable narrator recognizes a painting she did, of St. Vincent Ferrer, and is delighted to see it being studied by a teenage boy. But just as soon as we sort of get our bearings, we’re launched back in time, to a dirt yard in Ferrara, Italy, where the young Francescho is absorbed in her drawing. Before we know it, we’re back in 2014, in the bedroom of the boy from the museum — only he isn’t a boy at all, but a girl whose room is hung with photographs of her dead mother.
One of the most exciting things about this truly adventurous book is how it weaves together fact and fiction: The painter Francesco del Cossa really did exist. He was born to a stonemason in Ferrara in the 1430s and died in his early forties, most likely succumbing to the plague. Del Cossa is best known for the elaborate allegorical frescoes he painted in the Palazzo Schifanoia, a ducal retreat located just outside Ferrara’s city gates. Full of richly colored and meticulously detailed human figures — including saints and goddesses — as well as animals, they were commissioned by the city’s duke, Borso d’Este, in the late 1460s but were wrongly attributed to another painter for centuries, until a letter discovered in the 1800s confirmed the artist’s real identity. In the letter, del Cossa appeals to Borso for more money, explaining that he is highly skilled and well trained and that the meager per-square-foot pay he received “leaves me on a par with the saddest apprentice in Ferrara.” We know that the duke didn’t budge, and we know that after the incident, del Cossa left Ferrara for Bologna, where he remained for the duration of his relatively short life. Sure, it’s a giant leap to suggest that Francesco del Cossa was in fact a woman, making her way through the macho art world as a man, but the narrator’s sublime recollections place this possibility firmly within our imaginative reaches.
Sensitive and funny, George becomes obsessed with Francescho after her family travels to Ferrara to see the Palazzo Schifanoia frescoes. After that, and in the months following her mother’s death, George begins skipping school and going to the room in the National Gallery that houses Francescho’s painting of St. Vincent Ferrer in order to study it. There, George thinks about her mother, her dear little brother, and her inept father — and also about a blossoming romance. Like Francescho, George has an innate curiosity about the world, and her stream-of-consciousness musings (looking at art makes her think of “all the paintings made with all the eggs laid all the hundreds of years ago and the blips of life that were the lives of the warmblooded chickens who laid them”) are endearing.
When Francescho first lands in the present-day world, she struggles to remember her own name and how she died. She has no trouble, however, tapping into memories and experiences from her life. After all, as she maintains, “It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things.” In addition to requiring great sensitivity, painting also produces great sensitivity and awareness in an artist; Francescho remarks that in painting a rose, the artist is forced to consider the true nature of its petals, which are “thinner and more feeling than an eyelid.” For Francescho, a picture does “2 opposing things at once. The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood. The other is, it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.”
A fascinating examination of gender and sexuality, How to Be Both may certainly point to a goal of finding a balance between the feminine and masculine impulses we all emphasize — and conceal — to varying degrees. And Smith explores the nature of duality itself, making us question whether elements we initially perceive as being contradictory or opposing are so different after all.