How to be both – Ali Smith

[In my edition, the part that was printed first is the story of Francescho, the artist. I didn’t know at that time that half the print run had George’s story first. This journal is in six sections. As ever, I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

30 April 2015
Part One, first section – to page 64
Does the ‘both’ of the title refer to both genders? I’m annoyed with myself that I let Ali Smith lull me into complacency by having her first-person narrator a Renaissance artist. Male, obviously – which, half-way through this section, leads to what appears to be a case of underage transvestism. The mother’s death leads to the narrator, still a child, to obsess over the dead woman’s clothes, then to parade around the house in them, however much too big they might be. After some days or weeks, the narrator’s father makes a suggestion. Why doesn’t the child swap the oversized dresses for breeches and other boys’ clothes? It’s at this point that I realised what the father was suggesting. The narrator has shown remarkable talent for drawing, and we wonder why the father doesn’t suggest apprenticeship to an artist’s studio straight away. Instead, he outlines a strategy: if the young artist could spend time practising and becoming associated with the father’s family brickmaking and building company, it would be easier to get a studio to take her on. Because it’s sometime around now that it begins to dawn on the reader that the narrator is a woman.

I should have seen it coming. In her previous book, a hybrid mixture of novel and lecture series, Ali Smith scrupulously avoids specifying the gender either of the first-person narrator or of the lover who returns after death as a revenant. That book was Artful, a title that perfectly describes it. It is full of references to all the arts, presented in ways that are as devious and clever as the Dickens character the narrator is so interested in. Smith likes to wrong-foot her readers, and I should have been on my guard with this new novel. When we think of artists, we think of men, the reason for which is explained in Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race (1979) and Smith exploits this. It’s a new way to explore why talented women, for centuries, remained entirely hidden.

Something else that marks this out as an Ali Smith novel is her determination to take narrative into startling new places. That little gender trick isn’t pushing any envelopes – I can remember a children’s story from the 1970s in which Tyke, the laddish narrator, is revealed as Theodora in the final chapter – but there are plenty of other things going on. The opening of the novel is disorientating, as an undefined consciousness experiences something akin to the plummeting fall of Phaethon losing control of the horses drawing Apollo’s sun-chariot. The text snakes down the page like a broader version of the mouse’s ‘tale’ in Alice in Wonderland until – what? – the narrator is somewhere new and strange. This 15th Century artist is in a gallery containing one of ‘his’ pictures, among others, and we get the pride the narrator feels when it is looked at by a visitor in preference to the four by a rival painter….

We begin to get the back-story, including details of the father’s stratagem that must have been successful. There are further hints of how difficult it was to keep the deception going, and of how, occasionally, a tiny glance of recognition would reveal that other women were perpetrating it, their breasts strapped and wearing men’s clothes. Ali Smith is interested in the hands-on details of the artist’s craft, the grinding and preparation of pigments. In her working life, ‘Francescho’ appears not to make any great claims for the artist’s status. Her father is a brick-maker and builder, a reputable trade, and Francescho seems to have at least as much respect for a well-built wall as for the frescoes painted on it. In the strange new world where she has arrived, invisible, she notices the lamentable quality of the brickwork.

This world is our own. Francescho does her best to work out where she has washed up – a circle of Purgatory is her first guess – but the reader soon recognises it in what becomes a new narrative game. This world, where there is no place for horses and where a person can hold up what looks like a missal and create an image of what is in front of him, is clearly the 21st Century. Somehow, that fall of Phaethon has really been a hurtling rush through over 500 years, and many things are different. But there are still pictures on walls, and the way a boy in the gallery seems to develop an instant crush on a woman clearly out of his league is completely recognisable. And Francescho seems somehow to have become tied to this boy. When he leaves, the disembodied artist leaves too, following the woman all the way to where she lives. The woman doesn’t walk as elegantly as might have been expected – I’m sure there’s a clue in there somewhere – and when she goes inside, the boy sits forlornly on a wall that Franchesco regards with contempt.

And that’s it. Except that in one of the almost continual flashbacks, there’s the story of another wall. Francescho, still young but now always in boys’ clothes, meets a richly dressed boy standing on a high wall. He wants one of the fish that she has caught, and she throws one that knocks off his hat. This leads to a friendship, and she finds out that the boy is uncomfortable in the clothes he is forced to wear, the ones that mean he can’t play like ordinary boys. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of clothes in this book.

9 May
Second section – to page 140
There’s something innocent about this book. Francescho is innocence itself, expecting the best of people in her 15th Century world even as a worldlier part of herself can recognise their faults and little vanities. Or not so little: the duke she’s working for as she reaches her ‘thirtieth year’ is vanity personified, and wants the frescoes in his palace to portray his goodness like the illustrations in his favourite (and very expensive) holy book. Francescho sees all this, but does not quite seem able to see how mean this man is. Over many months, despite the hints and head-shaking of the manager of the project, she daily expects the remuneration she merits, beyond that of the jobbing artists around her. She is paying more for materials than the pitiful wage she receives, knows that this is a mere oversight…. Her response when the truth bears down on her is to replace an image of the duke giving out alms with one of him showing the needy his empty palms as he turns away. She paints this in secret in the night and makes her escape.

There’s something almost innocent about Ali Smith as well. Francescho, who knows her own skill and originality, is a kind of self-portrait of this writer who creates a world that feels a million miles from historical novels that display their scrupulous research like a badge of authenticity. Smith has done her research too, but she isn’t trying to pretend that this is anything but a fiction. She comes close to spelling this out near the end of this section, as Francescho guilelessly boasts of how she likes to break through the illusionistic surface of her pictures. ‘I like very much a foot, say, or a hand coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality….’ That use of ‘cause’ for ‘because’, a little tic Smith uses throughout, is like a hand or foot breaking through the surface. Writers of historical novels have for some time avoided the imitation of archaic vocabulary or speech. They are more interested in giving a sense of their characters living in their own present, as Hilary Mantel has described it, so characters use recognisably modern speech. Smith’s ‘cause’ is used by a character who is the product of a Scottish imagination, so why wouldn’t she use Scottish speech patterns? And she goes further: if there are plays on words, they are plays on English, not on what Francescho calls her language. At a big event, the nervous boy proclaiming the duke’s qualities stumbles: ‘Justice is dead!’ He tries again: ‘Justice is. Dead.’ Consternation. Then, finally: ‘Dedicating. This seat. To you.’ Later Smith has Francescho delete the ‘Just’ from ‘Justice’ in her picture, ‘till all you could read was ICE.’

Smith loves word-games, and she isn’t going to let a little matter like the fact that her narrator is notionally speaking Italian get in the way. Although she’ll use that fact for a different game if she feels like it, so that a poster must be of St Monica, because the woman is ‘Monica Victims’ in Francescho’s own language. It’s another of those time-shift misunderstandings that are familiar by now. Online pornography is a moving frieze depicting, badly, the act of love. The photographs taken using the device that poor old Francesho resorts to calling a ‘tablet’ – how we laughed – are ‘studies’ like those done using a cut-down version of a camera obscura.

These details come in the short sections of the 21st Century framing story. Francescho is still tied to the consciousness of the person she took to be a boy in the gallery – but, as she tells us in the first sentence of this section, ‘This boy is a girl.’ It’s the first sign of the parallels between these two lives, separated by centuries. They are also both obsessed with the visual depiction of things. The 21st Century girls makes a kind of shrine, using what we recognise as old photographs, of the mother we assume must be dead. She also seeks to make pictorial representations of what she feels for the woman she followed. She makes an elaborate display of pictures printed from ‘studies’ made with the tablet outside where the woman lives, over days and weeks, that now almost cover a wall of her bedroom. As Francescho says, describing a different time, pictures are the skin on the walls that someone once had to build, and the modern girl is taking this task very seriously indeed. But there might be a clue in that ‘skin’: how deep is she getting, with these images and the pornography that entirely fails to represent, as Francescho blandly pronounces, what love feels like?

Most of this section is about Francescho’s life. The richly-dressed boy on the wall is Barto who, for years, does not know Francescho’s secret. He pays for her first night in a brothel, and it becomes a show of solidarity with the woman who takes her for a shy young man. All Francescho wants to do is draw her, then let her sleep. But soon the nights in the brothel become a version of what Barto had wanted for his friend: she discovers sex. One night, one of the women kisses her – ‘I … had never expected such a thing to happen with any tongue ever, to me’. But, as the woman’s hand begins to feel inside her breeches, she is filled by a fear ‘100 times stronger than the feeling released by the kiss.’ She is about to be discovered… until ‘what she did to me next with that hand made me feel something 1000 times stronger than any fear….’

Maybe that’s what I mean by the innocence of this section. Smith gives us her own take on a centuries-old literary convention – I’m thinking of Gulliver and Candide – of the innocent abroad. So far, she’s let her innocent get away with it. Francescho soon discovers that the women much prefer sex with her than with their demanding male clients, and are willing to keep her secret as long as she makes those drawings for them. The madame of the brothel eventually confronts her – some of the women are leaving, having been persuaded by their own portraits that they are worthy of something better. But the madame – she is the oldest woman Francescho has ever seen – asks for a portrait of her own, and is mollified. Which leads to the long riff concerning the power of art to re-define a person that makes up the second half of this section. It even persuades Francesho, as she herself tells us, that the small-minded duke really is as generous as the frescoes show him to be.

So there’s a lot going on, and I haven’t told you the half of it. There’s more sex – Francescho’s experience with the dark-skinned ‘infidel’ contains a description, in a different form, of the figure in the fresco from the inside cover of the book – maybe this novel, among other things, is about how to be both gay and hetero – and there are questions of both sexual and gender ambivalence. Barto is mortified when he discovers Francescho’s secret, and it looks as though it will end their friendship. But he seems to get over it. She discovers that she is not favoured by the duke because she doesn’t have those private sessions with him like some of the other young men. The innocent is, at last, learning some hard truths, and this particular mistake costs her a lot. (The only consolation is that the duke drops down dead only a year and a half later.)

So what is Ali Smith doing, exactly? So many things, it seems – including an exploration, while depicting the awakening of sexual understanding, of how far from the reality any depiction can be. The 21st Century girl resorts to multiple prints. So far, Francescho’s best attempt has been not pictures, but those numbers: in italics, that 1000 times stronger…. We like to believe representations but, as Francesho learns very early on, we also like to be flattered. However, this being an Ali Smith novel, it’s more complicated than that. Francescho is a real artist, Francesco del Cossa, painter of the ‘infidel’ and the androgynous figure inside the book’s back cover. And painting is always described as a physically real process in this novel. The paint she uses is made of expensive ingredients painstakingly prepared in ways she is pleased to describe for us. The process defines the visible world for her: colours in the real world are always described according to the ingredient she would use in order to render them. That’s the artist for you, always wanting to show you exactly how a particular piece of art is made and, in turn, how it affects the way we perceive. Ali Smith could be describing her own methods.

10 May
Third section – to page 186
This takes us to the end of Part One of a two-part novel, and a quick glance suggests that the second part is the 21st Century girl’s story. The formatting of the text at the end of this section begins to waver, and we get two or more pages of those snaking lines we remember from the beginning. Francescho, who has begun to lose her hold on her memories and, in the parallel story of her life is showing symptoms of plague, travels back through the earth to wherever she came from. Ali Smith seems to like the journeys made by revenants, those reanimated corpses of supernatural tales, as we saw in Artful. Not that Francescho is one of those. She reminds us that she has no form, regretting having no arm with which to adjust the images of the girl whose life she shares for a while.

There’s no physical link between them, but there might be a psychic one. The 21st Century girl adapts the images she has made, cutting them and turning them into the brickwork of what Francescho decides is a rather well-made wall. It becomes a long, wide strip almost running the length of the room, and when the girl’s friend arrives – Francescho has never seen her before – they hold it up and are impressed. But the girl’s annoying little brother runs into it and nearly spoils it. He comes back later with hot drinks – which the girls put down on the paper, accidentally creating two circles that the friend unsticks and turns into eyes. Don’t ask me what that’s about… but it leads to a deliberate destruction of the illusion of the piece as a wall. First one of the girls, then the other, begins to wrap it around herself like a garment – as though to demonstrate, Francescho-like, that this never was a real wall.

Like the 21st Century girl, we know that Francescho also has annoying brothers. They never stop resenting the preferential treatment they feel she receives, routinely kicking over the pop-up studio she uses in the brickyard before she grows old enough to leave. Ali Smith constantly introduces parallels and echoes like this, for no other apparent reason, as far as I can tell, than for the sheer fun of doing it. Her fiction is like poetry in this respect, with echoes like internal rhymes. Or they are like those little visual echoes and jokes that Francescho includes in her paintings, filling the wall with little scenes that mirror and comment on the main image. I don’t know any other novelist who does it in quite this playful way.

Francescho’s story becomes darker. She seems to be approaching the death she hasn’t been able to remember before now, but long before this she has been plagued by a dark memory of her father that gives her nightmares and has turned her into a dull friend and unkind master of her assistants. Barto tries a kind of parlour trick on her, involving the drinking of a cup of forgetting and a cup of remembering, but it ends in a dark kind of joke as Francescho fakes total amnesia before falling on the eggs she’d taken from him and had genuinely forgotten about. I don’t know exactly where the darkness comes from. There’s a story from when she was still living at her father’s, when the artist she always calls Cosmo comes along and seems to admire her work, and that ends with a lot of it being stolen… but that doesn’t seem to be it. Her relationship with her father seems genuinely loving, so there seems nothing sinister there. Maybe the second half of the book will clear things up. Maybe.

11 May
Part One, first section – to page 258
Another Part One – and that isn’t the only thing that tightens the loose connections already established between the 21st Century girl’s story and Francescho’s. But before I come on to them, a word about tenses. Both characters use the present tense for what is happening in the first weeks and months of what we now know to be 2013. Meanwhile Francescho recounts the events in her own life in the past tense – a departure from the continuous present (or present continuous) used by so many historical novelists these days. It’s part of that thing of Hilary Mantel’s that I referred to earlier, by which she emphasises that her characters are living in their own present. But Ali Smith isn’t writing a historical novel. Francescho is remembering her past, and seems to be comfortable presenting it as long gone. Which it is. George, on the other hand – and wouldn’t you just know that like Ali Smith herself, she is known by a non-gender-specific form of her name? – describes her memories of the time before her mother’s death in the present tense. Occasionally she corrects herself – ‘not says, said’ – but not usually. And we’ve learnt enough about her pedantic approach to language to know that if she’s using the present tense it’s because she wants to. I’ll come back to that as well.

George is grieving. The chimes of Big Ben – or the display on her new smartphone, a consolation Christmas present – have just signalled the beginning of the New Year. Her lively, satirical, subversive mother died suddenly three months at the age of 50 and George – George Yah! as her parents used to call her if she insisted on her full name – is fairly sure she will never get over it. She is one of Ali Smiths intellectually precocious adolescents girls, a version of Brooke in There but for the. (Come to think of it, that novel also had a Scotswoman born in 1962. Like Ali Smith. I don’t know if she does this as a kind of knowing nod to the reader, or whether it simply gives her a shortcut into the mind-set of a key character.) George, like Brooke, is obsessed with words. It’s as though Ali Smith revels in the opportunity to be young and unconstrained in her wordplay and faux-naif pedantry. As if there isn’t enough wordplay in her novels already.

But it isn’t about words, it’s about death and grief and memory. Like Artful, then. And There but for the. If I keep on referring to Smith’s other recent fiction, it’s because I genuinely wonder whether these intertextual nudges are a part of her project to redefine fiction. Why, she seems to ask, should the invented worlds of different novels she’s written have to be separate? She can leave that to conventional novelists. I’ve already mentioned that Artful contains a character who is a revenant, returned to haunt his or her (as George would put it) former lover. The haunting, or whatever it is, in this novel is different. And, at the point I’ve reached, George knows nothing of Francescho’s ghostly presence. Maybe she never will, consciously. Except – and, of course, I can’t find it now – there’s the tiniest hint that she knows somebody is there in the first Part One.

Most of this section is about George’s recent past. We get the back-story of her life in a supportive middle class family in Cambridge – the city becoming another link with Smith’s own life, then, if not the class background – with her, George, cast in the role of awkward (ish) adolescent. Her mother, among other things, had been one of the originators of an online satirical group, lobbing ‘subverts’ at the sort of site that Smith herself would love to puncture. More specifically, we get a trip to Ferrara they went on (without the father, which I suspect is a significant detail), in order to see… guess. So a strong link, then, as George’s mother is almost overwhelmed, in a good way, by the frescoes we know about. Even George is intrigued, despite the ‘bored adolescent’ pose she sometimes strikes as a well-worn running gag. The playful richness of the pictures cheers the mother in particular, who is glad she came to look for this artist who, we learn, only become known of through the discovery that letter to the duke.

There’s something about this experience of Italy that attracts the whole family. The young people aren’t tied to their mobile devices, cyclists and pedestrians seem to co-exist amicably, and old people have social lives and speak to the young like human beings. Idealised? Well, it’s not only Ali Smith portraying this sunny existence, it’s the grieving George remembering the last time she remembered her mother being uncomplicatedly happy. There is a friendship between her mother and another woman – and I know how ambiguous that phrase sounds – that seems to have run aground, and her efforts to retrieve it have failed. Her mother didn’t marry until she was in her 30s. Just saying, as Francescho would put it in one of the anachronistic turns of phrase Ali Smith goes in for.

George’s grief is catastrophic. She becomes obsessed with the online porn that Francescho saw, and in particular with a video of a girl who looks about twelve. She wants to somehow rescue this girl by visiting the site every day at a set time. But what can you do, as her father asks when he discovers what she is doing and she tries to explain. He’s going through his own grief, drinking too much and taking little interest in anything. Smith, through George, is sarcastic about the numbers of ‘stages’ in different theories of grieving, making the point that there is no finite number because it will never really be over. The way that Smith keeps returning to this theme in her recent novels, and the vehemence of George’s rejection of easy routes through the aftermath of a death, make me wonder what loss she’s suffered. One way and another, she’s always present in her novels.

Of course, the school counsellor is no help. (Mrs Rock ‘the rock’, ho-ho.) And George seems locked into a downward, self –destructive spiral symbolised by her determination to let the leak in her dormer window turn into a structural weakness that will bring the roof crashing down on them all. (Ali Smith likes outward manifestations of interior lives. Look at Artful.) It’s only because of the first Part One, especially the last few pages, that we know there will be a time when she will be able to look at things differently. We don’t yet know how Francescho will help the process, and I’m not going to speculate. Time to read on.

[Later – to page 266]
There are a few more pages of this section. We are introduced to ‘Helena Fisker’ – always referred to by her full name, despite calling herself H – who arrives at 1.30 in the morning of New Year’s Day. She hardly knows George, but calls herself her friend when Henry, awake, asks her. (He’s the brother.) She’s a girl of some influence in the school, and once rescued George from some unpleasant toilet-related cyber-bullying (don’t ask). She later tells George she had liked the impromptu talk she’d given on empathy, or the lack of it, which culminated in the story of a celebrity who threw a bread roll at a maître d’ who was nasty to his waiters in the 1960s. One of the other girls calls H an ‘ethnic cow’ when she takes away the smartphone – them again – but I don’t know what she means by that exactly. If this is the girl who wraps the wall around herself later, I wonder why Francescho didn’t refer to her as an ‘infidel’.

It could be a pivotal moment. George laughs twice at things she says, then once again ‘inside’ when she realises this has happened. That’s three times, the first since her mother died.

I discover via the Internet – technology isn’t all bad – that the bread roll story refers to Dusty Springfield. I should have guessed. She was well known for her stand on equality and, many years after the incident in the sixties, a woman who came out as gay. She is the archetypal Ali Smith heroine, and the incident also appears in a short story she wrote for The New Statesman in 2012. You wouldn’t catch Ali Smith writing in just any old political journal. I bet George’s mum wrote for it. (And why do I refer to Smith by her full name, just as she does with H’s?)

Second Part One, second section – to page 336
I followed the link to the short story Smith wrote for the Statesman. The two characters, gender-unspecified, are like those in Artful, except both are alive. There’s something in the way they speak to one another, although the shine has long gone from their relationship, that is also very like the conversations George has with her mother, and with H. And Smith has one of the characters telling the other those right-on things about Dusty Springfield that I’ve already mentioned. She’s never anything if not thorough.

This section of the novel, longer than the others and taking us to within 30-odd pages of the end, is even busier than what’s come before. I sometimes worry that Smith is one of those novelists who has to include absolutely everything that is of current concern to her and it’s something else that makes me suspect that all her fiction, in terms of its themes, is one long autobiography. Her characters are interested in what is of concern to her. The surveillance culture of modern Britain has become worrying. Young people are too involved in their smart mobile devices. Women artists have had a bad deal for centuries. Language, and the way it is used, matters. (Or, perhaps, matter. Isn’t there a plural in there, as George would no doubt say?) As a culture, we forget about things that aren’t happening in the here and now. The dynamics of same-sex relationships are endlessly fascinating. It is possible for cyclists and pedestrians to co-exist. And these are just half a dozen or so off the top of my head….

What happens? A few days spent together over the next few months show George’s developing relationship with H, and more flashbacks take us back to the short break in Ferrara. Sometimes I find her mother implausibly right-on and emotionally well-rounded. George tells her (and us) that it is texts she wrote from her mother’s phone that account for the other woman’s estrangement. Basically, in her gauche adolescent way, she broke off the relationship. Her mother finds this hilarious. (Yeh, sure.) Unhappy about the way the other woman wanted to take things to a more serious level, she had already begun to withdraw a little. The woman didn’t seem to be quite what she appeared anyway – her artistic book creations, and her studio, seem not to be hers, and George’s mother joked that she had been sent to put her under surveillance. She wasn’t entirely joking. She’d definitely got a buzz from it all, as she frankly tells George, but her life with her husband and family was something she wouldn’t dream of giving up. Bizarrely, this is the gist of George’s texts to the woman.

This conversation happens in Ferrara, as do others about the nature of art. Among other things (sigh), George’s mother is quite an art expert, and is good at offering up the kind of feminist critique of renaissance art, full of playfulness but with a very serious underlying purpose, that you would expect Ali Smith to write. Later, George passes on some of her mother’s insights to H, pointing out the sexual symbolism in Francescho’s work. An arrow and hoop? A thrusting rock formation apparently matched by an inviting-looking cave? That ‘vaginal’ opening on the ‘infidel’s’ shirt-front? There are eyes, too. The title-page of the first Part One has a diagrammatic version of Francescho’s painting of a flower with eyes instead of blooms. The second Part One has a surveillance camera. Who’s looking?

By way of an understated hand-holding session, H seems tentatively to move things on with George. I find their friendship, and H’s maturity, as hard to believe as anything in George’s relationship with her mother. It’s all so damned supportive, somehow, in contrast with the increasingly threadbare sessions with the Rock. H’s second visit isn’t until February, but she takes George out of herself, almost literally, by way of an adventure with a shopping trolley in a multi-storey car-park. George can’t remember ever feeling such a mixture of being both out of control and, somehow, in charge of her own destiny. Later they work on a school sympathy/empathy project together, and we remember it was the story of Dusty Springfield’s empathy in the restaurant that had made H notice her in the first place.

For the project, they wonder about doing something about that interesting Italian painter. Smith plays an literary game at one point, when she has them imagining the painter as a woman, then of her time-travelling to our own century. But would they be expected ‘to imagine all that dreary historical imagine you are a person from another time stuff? … Imagine you are … parachuted into the 21st Century.’ For a moment, it seems as though Smith is going to account for the imaginative tour de force of the first Part One. But no, she can leave tricks like that to Ian McEwan in Atonement. They decide it would be beyond them: ‘He’d be all alas I’m being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me….’ Thank goodness for that…. But ‘It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.’ What, a Scotswoman born in 1962 and now living in Cambridge, you mean? It’s the most blatant example so far of Smith placing a hand into our space, of breaking through the normally inviolate painted surface of the wall. (We haven’t yet had an account from George’s point of view of her creation of a wall that isn’t a wall, but it’s hovering there somewhere.)

As I said, it’s busy. Weeks and months seem to be passing, and we see George gathering her pictures together. There are the ones of her mother, the one of the French actresses, the Italian actress… but, so far, no mention of George’s vigils outside the door of a woman she followed from an art gallery, or of the pictures she took there. Maybe I just haven’t reached that point yet. I can’t remember what month it was when Francescho parachuted in. And… H is leaving. Her father keeps getting jobs in other countries, and she’s off to Copenhagen. Damn.

There’ll be a lot I’ve missed, but I it’s time to read on now.

13 May
Third section of the second Part One – to the end
This is short and feels… short. And I’m convinced more than ever that this book is a kind of autobiography. Or a statement of belief. Or… what? Every attractive character says things that you just know Ali Smith herself would like to say. George’s mother, the near-clone of Smith, was wise and clever and knew the difference between being pedantically correct and being right. In the conversations George remembers, Smith allows her to speak to a younger version of herself in an idealised presentation of what parenting might be like if things weren’t the way they really are. (I got the same feeling from the impossibly right-on Bayoude family, including the younger George clone, Brooke, in There but for the.)

So when we get a reminder – I assume Smith realises it isn’t going to be news to anybody reading this – that Crick and Watson were a bit sexist in the way they sidelined Rosalind Franklin, this really does feel like merely a part of Smith’s agenda. Or another branch of it: just as the history of women in art is hidden, the same goes for women in science. Yep, Ali, got it. I wonder, by this point in the novel, whether it matters who imparts the information. Yes and no, I think. Yes, because it becomes a part of the learning process for George that runs alongside the grieving process. She is her mother’s daughter, and is finally learning how to be like her. This time, Smith’s way of making it physical is to have George cycling along the long Cambridge footpath that represents a tiny section of the human genome. It’s all about DNA in general, and George’s DNA in particular. But Smith’s other project is to write what is essentially an essay on the hidden lives of supremely capable women. Sometimes it feels too schematic, which can be a problem with Smith’s theme-heavy novels. (‘Does it feel as schematic as this as you read? Almost. The themes I was neatly ticking off as I read the first section are present in this one as well.’ That’s something I wrote while reading There but for the.)

It’s about how, in a culture fixated on the here and now, young people have to learn from the past. By the end of what is turning into a Bildungsroman, George has begun to develop into the adult she will be, and it’s through what has been passed on to her in more senses than one. Fine.

Except, not quite fine. George is grieving for her mother, and in this half of the novel she gets, at a rough guess, twenty times more of George’s head-space (and Smith’s) than her father. He’s absent from the Italy trip which, through George’s remembering, becomes a series of epiphanies. Now, in this short final section which is about a whole raft of themes, Smith is faced with trying to reintroduce him to George’s life. At first he’s in the pit of grief he’s been in all along, stinking so much of drink that George can hardly bear to be in the same room. But… she does bear him, and when he tells her that he dreads her leaving him, she reminds him she is only sixteen. This might be the moment when she decides to tell him about the leak that might soon begin to cause structural damage. This admission, of course, tells us a lot about her recovery – but it tells us about his, too, as he immediately goes up to assess the damage, with a view to putting it right. In the final pages of the novel when George finds herself using the future tense for the first time since her mother’s death, she is able to picture him in the garden ‘in the summer’ – which is soon – wearing his precious headphones and conducting the imaginary orchestra in his head. In other words, Smith tells us in best Victorian tradition, he’ll be ok. Phew…. And he has another role. He has been carefully leaving the mother’s ashes in places she liked, including the nooks and crannies of galleries, so that when George comments on her felt presence in those places, there’s that literal truth in what she says. Smith likes that kind of link to the physical world. As we know.

There might be no easy answers for George. Nobody ever tells her that time is a great healer, that she will achieve closure. (I can imagine Smith’s sarcasm, or George’s, if such ideas were to be suggested.) But things do get better – which is what people say about the passage of six months or so. There are consolations. She is beginning to piece together a relationship with her father as he makes his own recovery – maybe she really is learning about empathy at last – and there’s another consolation in the form of texts from H in Copenhagen. Whatever this is, she decides it’s definitely to do with love. (I don’t know if H’s playlist of 1970s music is a kind of nod to George’s father, ten years younger than her mother. George had been playing 60s music in tribute to her mother, and in particular a dance record her mother had loved.)

So, the loose ends are all tied up? Well, no. Four pages from the end, Smith steps almost entirely out of the picture frame. As George sits in Room 55 of the National Gallery, her place of daily pilgrimage for a while, we get this: ‘This is the point in this story at which, according to its structure so far, a friend enters or a door opens or some kind of plot surfaces … to provide a friendly nudge forward to whatever’s coming next.’ And… nothing happens. But, we are told, it is going to. Her mother’s friend will arrive and, in the future tense, we are taken through what Francescho witnessed at the beginning of the novel, right down to the wall George sits on outside the house. And when George tries to piece together what on earth the woman was doing in the gallery, she can’t come up with a plausible explanation. (She lists two.) And then she can. ‘Perhaps somewhere in all of this if you look there’s proof of love.’ This angers her at first. But she will watch the woman who must have been watching and, in a play of words I don’t want to go into just now, ‘will maze the minotaur back. / Touché. / High five. / Both.’

This isn’t the end of the novel, but it nearly is. At some time in the near future, George will begin to understand something about how extraordinary her mother was, and about the power of love. Yep, that’ll do.

[Postscript]
Ok. But what really is the link between an artist Ali Smith clearly doesn’t really believe was a woman and a grieving adolescent who doesn’t really believe her mother was the victim of some kind of political vendetta? Is there a link at all and, in a novel like this one, does it matter if there isn’t? I’m guessing, to answer my last two questions, no, and no. Maybe I’ll just leave it there.

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