How to be both by Ali Smith is a strange novel: it consists of two parts named “camera” and “eyes” and the paper edition half the copies were printed with the part in an order and the other half with opposite order. The cover was the same, so the book itself is a demonstration of how a single thing is two different ones.
The parts are set in different times, “eyes” is set during Italian Renaissance (circa 1460) and the main character is Francesco del Cossa, a painter we know very few about and who painted three of the months on the internal walls of palazzo Schifanoia (Ferrara). The eyes are a reference to the act of looking and to the Saint Lucy’s painting, in which the Saint holds a flower made by two eyes.
The absence of information about the painter allows the author to imagine him as an artistically skilled woman forced to disguise herself as a man to work as a painter (also here a reference to the title: the painter is one but he is both a man and a woman). “Camera” instead is set nowadays in England, the main character is Georgia (called George), a young adult who has lost her mother and who is trying to overcome the loss.
The sections could seem unrelated, but it is not so: George remembers the last trip with her mother to Ferrara, to see a palace and its frescoes and the discussions about their painter, while Francesco Del Cossa is presented as a spirit busy partly in remembering his past life he has only few flashes about and partly in remembering the modern world and the boy (but maybe it’s a girl?) observing one of his painting in an art gallery.
How to be both provided me materials to thinks about, also after finishing reading it: it provides information and hints about art production and observation, and, by building a possible identity for Francesco del Cossa, it also deals with the role of women in art in the past and proposes an interesting historical reconstruction of the Renaissance period. Concerning the narrative side I think the idea of creating two sections that could be read in either order is brilliant. The reading experience will be different depending which part comes first, and once ended the book it would be impossible to grasp the other experience, since the story is already known. The novel is one but provide two different experiences.
I waited some time before reading this novel because I did not know what to make of the summary and the cover (the one here with the two French singers), now I absolutely suggest it to art and book lovers.
The novel was listed for different prizes, and among them it was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
* How to be both by Ali Smith ★★★★★
*I read this book in english