Fiction Book of the Month May: How to be Both – Ali Smith

Fiction Book of the Month May: How to be Both – Ali Smith

‘How to be Both brims with palpable joy, not only at language, literature, and art’s transformative power, but at the messy business of being human, of wanting to be more than one kind of person at once.’ – Patrick Flanery, The Telegraph

‘Ali Smith is a one-off. Her imagination and originality make her one of the most exciting novelists of her generation and for such a profound book this is a remarkably easy and immensely enjoyable read.’ – Caroline Jowett, The Daily Express

‘How to be Both shows us that the arrangement of a story, even when it’s the same story, can change our understanding of it and define our emotional attachments. We may have known this, but to see it enacted with such imagination is dazzling indeed.’ – Arifa Akbar, The Independent

In an interesting quirk, some readers may begin How to be Both with George and others may begin with Francesco. Two versions of the book were intentionally printed so that readers may begin the story with a different perspective depending on which copy of the book they have. Readers and reviewers have reported various interpretations dependant on the perspective they begin with, and some have even expressed disappointment that they will never know what it is to read the book for the first time from the other perspective.

To celebrate May’s Fiction Book of the Month, we’ve got our hands on both opening chapters to share with our readers. Tread carefully, if you want to truly experience one perspective before the other then choose who you begin with wisely.

George’s Opening Chapter:


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 f*** 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.

 Is this something that already has an answer in reality but you’re testing me with the concept of it though you already know perfectly well what you yourself think about it? George says.

 Maybe, her mother says. But I’m not interested in what I think. I’m interested in what you think.

 You’re not usually interested in anything I think, George says.

 That’s so adolescent of you, George, her mother says.

 I am adolescent, George says.

 Well, yes. That explains that, then, her mother says.

 There’s a tiny silence, still okay, but if she doesn’t give in a bit and soon George knows that her mother, who has been prickly, unpredictable and misery-faced for weeks now about there being trouble in the paradise otherwise known as her friendship with that woman Lisa Goliard, will get first of all distant then distinctly moody and ratty.

 Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?

 Do either of those things matter? her mother says.

 Does either, George says. Either being singular.

 Mea maxima, her mother says.

 I just don’t get why you won’t commit, ever, George says. And that doesn’t mean what you think it means. If you say it without the culpa it just means I’m the most, or I’m the greatest, or to me the greatest belongs, or my most.

 It’s true, her mother says. I’m the most greatest. But the most greatest what?

 Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other.

 Who says? Why must it? her mother says.

 AUGH, George says too loud.

 Don’t, her mother says jerking her head towards the back. Unless you want him awake, in which case you’re in charge of entertainment.

 I. Can’t. Answer. Your. Moral. Question. Unless. I. Know. More. Details, George says sotto voce, which, in Italian, though George doesn’t speak Italian, literally means below the voice.

 Does morality need details? her mother whispers back.

 God, George says.

 Does morality need God? her mother says.

 Talking to you, George says still below the voice, is like talking to a wall.

 Oh, very good, you, very good, her mother says.

 How exactly is that good? George says.

 Because this particular art, artist and conundrum are all about walls, her mother says. And that’s where I’m driving you to.

 Yeah, George says. Up the wall.

 Her mother laughs a real out-loud laugh, so loud that after it they both turn to see if Henry will waken, but he doesn’t. This kind of laugh from her mother is so rare right now that it is almost like normal. George is so pleased she feels herself blush with it.

 And what you just said is grammatically incorrect, she says.

 It is not, her mother says.

 It is, George says. Grammar is a finite set of rules and you just broke one.

 I don’t subscribe to that belief, her mother says.

 I don’t think you can call language a belief, George says.

 I subscribe to the belief, her mother says, that language is a living growing changing organism.

 I don’t think that belief will get you into heaven, George says.

 Her mother laughs for real again.

 No, listen, an organism, her mother says –

 (and through George’s head flashes the cover of the old paperback called How To Achieve Good Orgasm that her mother keeps in one of her bedside cupboards, from way before George was born, from the time in her mother’s life when she was, she says, young and easy under some appleboughs)

 – which follows its own rules and alters them as it likes and the meaning of what I said is perfectly clear therefore its grammar is perfectly acceptable, her mother says.

 (How To Achieve Good Organism.)

 Well. Grammatically inelegant then, George says.

 I bet you don’t even remember what it was I said in the first place, her mother says.

Where I’m driving you to, George says.

 Her mother takes both hands off the wheel in mock despair.

 How did I, the most maxima unpedantic of all the maxima unpedantic women in the world, end up giving birth to such a pedant? And why the hell wasn’t I smart enough to drown it at birth?

 Is that the moral conundrum? George says.

 Consider it, for a moment, yes, why don’t you, her mother says.

 No she doesn’t.

 Her mother doesn’t say.

 Her mother said.

 Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable. Because it’s New Year not May, and it’s England not Italy, and it’s pouring with rain outside and regardless of the hum (the hummin’) of the rain you can still hear people’s stupid New Year fireworks going off and off and off like a small war, because people are standing out in the pouring rain, rain pelting into their champagne glasses, their upturned faces watching their own (sadly) inadequate fireworks light up then go black.

Francesco’s Opening Chapter:


Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a

      fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook

        if a fish could be fished through a

          6 foot thick wall made of bricks or an

      arrow if an arrow could fly in a leisurely

    curl like the coil of a snail or a

star with a tail if the star was shot

      upwards past maggots and worms and

          the bones and the rockwork as fast

          coming up as the fast coming down

        of the horses in the story of

      the chariot of the sun when the

bold boy drove them though

      his father told him not to and

        he did anyway and couldn’t hold them

      he was too small too weak they nosedived

        crashed to the ground killed the crowds

      of folk and a fieldful of sheep beneath

    and now me falling upward at the

rate of 40 horses dear God old

      Fathermother please spread extempore

          wherever I’m meant to be hitting

          whatever your target (begging your

      pardon) (urgent) a flock of the nice

    soft fleecy just to cushion (ow) what the

just caught my (what)

    on a (ouch)

      dodged a (whew) (biff)

        (bash) (ow)


        wait though

          look is that


          blue sky the white drift

        the blue through it

      rising to darker blue

    start with green-blue underpaint

add indigo under lazzurrite mix in

lead white or ashes glaze with lapis

        same old sky? earth? again?

          home again home again

            jiggety down through the up

              like a seed off a tree with a wing

              cause when the

            roots on their way to the surface

          break the surface they turn into stems

      and the stems push up over themselves into stalks

    and up at the ends of the stalks

there are flowers that open for

all the world like

      eyes :

        hello :

          what’s this?

            A boy in front of a painting.

    Good : I like a good back : the best thing about a turned back is the face you can’t see stays a secret : hey : you : can’t hear me? Can’t hear? No? My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can’t hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it’s neither here nor there when you’re neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don’t care – don’t have to care – good – somebody else can care, cause listen, once an old man slept for winters tucked in a bed with my Marsyas (early work, gone for ever, linen, canvas, rot) stiff with colours on top of his bedclothes, he hadn’t many bedclothes but my Marsyas kept him warm, nice heavy extra skin kept him alive I think : I mean he died, yes, but not till later and not of the cold, see?

    No one remembering that old man.

    Except, I just did, there

though very faint, the colours now

    can hardly remember my own name, can hardly rememb anyth

    though I do like, I did like

    a fine piece of cloth

    and the way the fall of a ribboned bit off a shirt or sleeve will twist as it falls

    and how the faintest lightest nearly not-there charcoal line can conjure a sprig that splits open a rock

    and I like a nice bold curve in a line, his back has a curve at the shoulder : a sadness?

    Or just the eternal age-old sorrow of the initiate

    (put beautifully though I say so myself)

    but oh God dear Christ and all the saints – that picture he’s – it’s – mine, I did it,

    who’s it again?

    not St Paolo though St Paolo’s always bald cause bald’s how you’re supposed to do St Paolo –

    wait, I – yes I, think I – the face, the –

    cause where are the others? Cause it wasn’t just it, it was a piece belonged with others : someone’s put it in a frame

    very nice frame

    and the stonework in it, uh huh, the cloakwork good, no, very good the black of it to show the power, see how the cloak opens to more fabric where you’d expect flesh to be, that’s clever, revealing nothing and ah, small forest of baby conifers tucked on the top of the broken column behind his head –

    but what about that old Christ at the top of it?



    like He made it after all all the way to old man when everyone knows Christ’s never to be anything other than unwrinkled eyes shining hair the colour of ripe nut from the hazel tree and parted neatly in the middle like the Nazarenes straight on top falling curlier from the ears down countenance more liable to weep than laugh forehead wide smooth serene no older than 33 and still a most beautiful child of men old man Christ, why would I paint an old (blaspheming)?

    Wait – cause – think I remember : something : yes, I put some hands, 2 hands below his (I mean His) feet : something you’d only see if you really looked, hands that belong to the angels but all the same look like they don’t belong to anyone : like they’re corroded with gold, gold all over them like sores turned into gold, a velvet soup of gold lentils, gold mould as if blisters of the body can become precious metal

    but why on earth did I?

    (Can’t remem)

    Look at all the angels round Him pretty with their whips and scourges, I was good

    no, no, step back take a look at a proper distance at the whole thing

    and other pictures in this room : stop looking at your own : look at others for edification.

    Think I recog

    oh Christ – that’s a –

    Cosmo, isn’t it?

    A Cosmo.

    St Gerolamo –?

    but ha ha oh dear God look at it piece of oh ho ho ho ridiculous nonsense

    (from whom my saint averts his eyes with proper restraint and dignity)

    showy Cosmo’s showy saint, mad, laughable, his hand in the air holding the rock up high about to stone himself so the patrons get their money’s worth : look at the tree all gesture-bent unnatural behind him and the blood all adrippy on his chest : dear God dear Motherfather did I come the hard way back through the wall of the earth the stratifications the rocks and the soil the worms and the crusts the stars and the gods the vicissitudes and the histories the broke bits of forgettings and rememberings all the long road from gone to here – for Cosmo to be almost the first thing as soon as I open my

    Cosmo bloody Cosmo with his father a cobbler, no higher than mine, lower even : Cosmo high on nothing but court frippery vain as vain can : veering as ever in all his finery towards the gnarled and the unbeautiful : the fawning troupe of assistants attending to each mark he made like his every gesture was a ducal procession.

How to be Both by Ali Smith is available to order online as a Hardback, Paperback and eBook.

You can take a look at our selection of Book of the Month titles here.