How to Be Both

Pasatiempo - - News - by Ali Smith, Pan­theon Books, 372 pages — Iris McLis­ter

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.

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