4/02/2018

How to Be Both x Ali Smith




I recently stumbled upon Poppy Loves Book Club, a worldwide book club for women w/ IRL and online discussions aplenty. When I saw they were reading an Ali Smith book, you can bet I signed up mighty fast. How to Be Both is Smith's award-winning novel inspired by fresco painting, a technique which she seamlessly applies to text.

How to Be Both is split into two narratives; eyes and camera. The beauty of this book really is that it is printed at random. You might stumble upon a book that begins with camera, alternative copies begin with eyes. Each are separate tales, involving separate protagonists and time periods but they both intertwine. Through the common themes of time, art, loss and love, we see that the experiences faced by Georgia in 2014 run parallel to what Francesco dealt with in renaissance Italy. I feel like Ali did this in order to show that our life experiences transcend time. We may have new technologies and so many new advancements but our experiences with the likes of loss, finding one's own identity and vice versa remain the same. 

This isn't really a book you can spoil per se but the way in which the narratives of camera and eyes fuse together is so cleverly done. There is no correct way to read this book, and it may just be because my copy started with the camera narrative but I really think it informs the reading of eyes that much better. In fact I'm almost certain it does because when I first tried reading this book upon its release, a copy that started with eyes, I was perplexed and confused, eventually abandoning it. That being said, when I revisit this book which I am almost certain I will, I plan to read it in reverse so it will be interesting to see how that modifies the reading experience, if at all. 

As the text was inspired by fresco painting it really mirrors the multilayered aspects of these artworks. While fresco painting isn't a technique that is readily employed now, the personal galleries we curate for ourselves and build upon are much like fresco painting. In the camera narrative, Georgia arranges images on her wall, one being the photograph on the cover of the novel but also pictures of her mother who has recently passed away. In eyes, we see Francesco painting frescoes and building upon his work as the story progresses. 

I could talk about How to Be Both all day and probably still not be done with it. I was so disappointed I had to miss the Auckland discussion of it last week. Although in many ways maybe it's a blessing because I probably wouldn't have been quiet. My copy is overrun with annotations and notes+ideas which really emphasises to me how much I loved this book. If you do read this, you are in for a treat. It's worth persevering with but that being said, if you aren't used to Ali Smith start with one of her short story volumes. Her writing style is very distinct and does require a bit of patience, speaking from experience so I recommend starting with another book first. 

Before I make this love-fest any longer, I thought I'd share some of my favourite extracts from the novel because it is beautiful:

"She will lie in bed with all the covers thrown off and the stars will be directly above her, nothing between her and their long-ago burnt-out eyes." (pg. 12)

"She is not going to get the important boredoms and mournings and melancholies that are her due and are owing to her just from being the age that she is, for now it will be interrupted by real mournings and real melancholies." (pg. 83)

"Cause nobody's the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves." (pg. 282)

"...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 a summer dark." (pg. 282-apparently I liked this page)

-Have you read How to Be Both? What did you think of it?

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