Cover image for How to be both
How to be both
Smith, Ali, 1962-
Personal Author:
First United States edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2014]
Physical Description:
371 pages ; 22 cm
"SHORT-LISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith's novels are like nothing else. How to be both is a novel all about art's versatility. Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it's a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There's a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There's the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real--and all life's givens get given a second chance"--

"The brilliant Booker-nominated novel from one of our finest authors: How to Be Both is a daring, inventive tale that intertwines the stories of a defiant Renaissance painter and a modern teenage girl. How can one be both--near and far, past and present, male and female? In Ali Smith's new novel, two extraordinary characters inhabit the spaces between categories. In one half of the book, we follow the story of Francescho del Cossa, a Renaissance painter in fifteenth-century Italy who assumes a duel identity, living as both a man and a woman. In the novel's other half, George, a contemporary English teenage girl, is in mourning after the death of her brilliant, rebellious mother. As she struggles to fill the void in her life, George finds her thoughts circling again and again around a whimsical trip she and her mother once made to Italy, to see a certain Renaissance fresco... These two stories call out to each other in surprising and deeply resonant ways to form a veritable literary double-take, bending the conventions of genre, storytelling, and our own preconceptions"--
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A Best Book of the Year: NPR, Financial Times

Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith's novels are like nothing else. A true original, she is a one-of-a-kind literary sensation. Her novels consistently attract serious acclaim and discussion--and have won her a dedicated readership who are drawn again and again to the warmth, humanity and humor of her voice.
How to be both  is a novel all about art's versatility. Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it's a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There's a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There's the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real--and all life's givens get given a second chance.

Who says stories reach everybody in the same order?
This novel can be read in two ways and this book provides you with both.
In half of all printed editions of the novel the narrative EYES comes before CAMERA.
In the other half of printed editions the narrative CAMERA precedes EYES.
The narratives are exactly the same in both versions, just in a different order.
The books are intentionally printed in two different ways, so that readers can randomly have different experiences reading the same text. So, depending on which edition you happen to receive, the book will be: EYES, CAMERA, or CAMERA, EYES. Enjoy the adventure.

Author Notes

Ali Smith was born in 1962 in Inverness. She is a Scottish writer. She studied at the University of Aberdeen and then at Newnham College, Cambridge, for a PhD. She worked as a lecturer at University of Strathclyde until she fell ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Following this she became a full-time writer[4] and now writes for The Guardian, The Scotsman, and the Times Literary Supplement.

In 2007 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Smith was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to literature. Her short story colection includes: Free Love and Other Stories, The Whole Story and Other Stories, and The First Person and Other Stories. Her novels include: Like, Hotel World, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, There But For The, and How to Be Both. She was short listed for the Folio Prize 2015. She won the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction for her novel How to be Both.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In this era of extolling genre fiction and the joys of story, Smith's latest novel makes a case for experimental, literary fiction. One half of this daring novel is the mostly conventional tale of a precocious teen struggling with the death of her arty, brilliant mother. George, née Georgia, is still living in a kind of stunned stupor. She sees a school counselor but is mostly helped by her first crush, the alluring H, who starts to pull her out of her shell. The other half of the novel is narrated by the disembodied voice of a fifteenth-century painter caught in the wave-laden air of twentieth-century Britain. As the spirit observes the contemporary world, with its votive tablets (iPhones), she casts back to her own life disguised as a boy in order to practice her art. Along the way, we learn of a teenager's bratty ways with her smart but sometimes overbearing parents, the power politics of Renaissance Italy, the best places to procure blue pigment, and how everyone, everywhere, must come to terms with the passage of time and the grief of loss. And we learn how to be both: male and female, artist and businessperson, rememberer and forgiver, reader of tales and literary adventurer. Lucky us.--Weber, Lynn Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

British author Smith (There but for The), a playful, highly imaginative literary iconoclast, surpasses her previous efforts in this inventive double novel that deals with gender issues, moral questions, the mystery of death, the value of art, the mutability of time, and several other important topics. Two books coexist under the same title, each presenting largely the same material arranged differently and with different emphases; which narrative one reads first depends on chance, as different copies of the book have been printed with different opening chapters. In one version, the androgynous adolescent character George (for Georgia) is mourning the sudden death of her mother following a family trip to Italy, where they viewed a painting by the obscure Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa. The alternate volume begins with Francesco, recounting stories of the painter's youth and the ongoing creation of a fresco in a palazzo in Ferrara, a process described in vibrant detail. Francesco's secret is disclosed in both sections-teasingly in one, overtly in the other. The narratives are captivating, challenging, and often puzzling, as the prose varies among contemporary vernacular English, archaic 15th-century rhetoric interposed with fragments of poetry, and unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness narration. Clever puns and word games abound. George's mother accurately identifies the subtext when she says, "Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen." Smith's two-in-one novel is a provocative reevaluation of the form. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Starred Review. What if an Italian Renaissance painter were to drop down to Earth and observe the mysterious modern world specifically, the world of one bright, young Cambridge girl in the wake of a recent family tragedy? This is the premise of Smith's bold new novel actually two novels (Eyes and Camera) in one. Camera is set in the present, when George (Georgia) is grieving the loss of her mother, a feminist art and culture critic, who liked to challenge George about the meaning of art and life, and who became so intrigued by the work of Italian artist Francesco del Cossa that she spirited her children off to Italy to view his frescoes (only recently uncovered beneath later paintings) in their natural setting. Francesco's story (Eyes) covers his friendship with the boy who grew up to become his benefactor and patron, as well as his early art training and his work on the grand palazzo walls. VERDICT Two versions of the book will be available: one beginning with the artist's story, the other with George's and readers won't know which they will be reading first until they open their particular book. The order in which the stories are read will surely color the reader's experience of the whole. Which version is the preferred? And "how to be both" seen and unseen, past and present, male and female, alive and dead, known and unknown? In a work short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize, Smith presents two extraordinary books for the price of one. Barbara Love, formerly with Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George who's sitting in the front passenger seat. Not says. Said. George's mother is dead. What moral conundrum? George says. The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side the driver's seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving. Okay. You're an artist, her mother says. Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum? Ha ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it. You're an artist. This conversation is happening last May, when George's mother is still alive, obviously. She's been dead since September. Now it's January, to be more precise it's just past midnight on New Year's Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George's mother died. George's father is out. It is better than him being at home, standing maudlin in the kitchen or going round the house switching things off and on. Henry is asleep. She just went in and checked on him; he was dead to the world, though not as dead as the word dead literally means when it means, you know, dead. This will be the first year her mother hasn't been alive since the year her mother was born. That is so obvious that it is stupid even to think it and yet so terrible that you can't not think it. Both at once. Anyway George is spending the first minutes of the new year looking up the lyrics of an old song. Let's Twist Again. Lyrics by Kal Mann. The words are pretty bad. Let's twist again like we did last summer. Let's twist again like we did last year. Then there's a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn't, properly speaking, even a rhyme. Do you remember when Things were really hummin'. Hummin' doesn't rhyme with summer, the line doesn't end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad? Then Let's twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin' time. At least they've used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says. I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says. That before and after thing is about mourning, is what people keep saying. They keep talking about how grief has stages. There's some dispute about how many stages of grief there are. There are three, or five, or some people say seven. It's quite like the songwriter actually couldn't be bothered to think of words. Maybe he was in one of the three, five or seven stages of mourning too. Stage nine (or twenty three or a hundred and twenty three or ad infinitum, because nothing will ever not be like this again): in this stage you will no longer be bothered with whether songwords mean anything. In fact you will hate almost all songs. But George has to find a song to which you can do this specific dance. It being so apparently contradictory and meaningless is no doubt a bonus. It will be precisely why the song sold so many copies and was such a big deal at the time. People like things not to be too meaningful. Okay, I'm imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January stares at the meaninglessness of the words of an old song. Outside the car window Italy unfurls round and over them so hot and yellow it looks like it's been sandblasted. In the back Henry snuffles lightly, his eyes closed, his mouth open. The band of the seatbelt is over his forehead because he is so small. You're an artist, her mother says, and you're working on a project with a lot of other artists. And everybody on the project is getting the same amount, salary-wise. But you believe that what you're doing is worth more than everyone on the project, including you, is getting paid. So you write a letter to the man who's commissioned the work and you ask him to give you more money than everyone else is getting. Am I worth more? George says. Am I better than the other artists? Does that matter? her mother says. Is that what matters? Is it me or is it the work that's worth more? George says. Good. Keep going, her mother says. Is this real? George says. Is it hypothetical? Does that matter? her mother says. Excerpted from How to Be Both by Ali Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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