Tag Archives: Folio Prize

How to be both by Ali Smith

Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:BWPFF 2015 logo

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
  • WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
  • WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
  • WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015

The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.

What is the book about?

160 How to be bothPart One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’

Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.

One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)

160 St VincentThe other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.

Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.

Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.

Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.

Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.

There are bees : there was a butterfly.

That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.

How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)

Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.

What’s to enjoy about this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.

We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.

I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.

This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.

I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.

I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.

 

How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp

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Nationalism and Literary Prizes

122 Man Booker 2O14The Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English for the first time this year. It also opened a can of worms. Journalists began to write as if it were meaningful to refer to national fiction. They warned us that British fiction is not what it used to be. It was suggested that our national honour, or something, is impugned by the American prizewinners. You would have been forgiven for thinking that British fiction is in danger of being taken over, swept aside, overwhelmed. The Yanks are coming!.

Did the Yanks come?

In the event, the new rules for the Man Booker Prize meant that two Americans got to the shortlist of six: Karen Joy Fowler with We are all Completely Beside Ourselves; and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. The announcement of the shortlist allowed journalists to reassure us about the issue they had raised. Warnings of an American wipeout had been exaggerated. The winner was an Australian, Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

131 Flanagan MBP

Sarah Churchwell was on the panel of judges for the Prize. She made this comment in the Guardian Review, following the announcement of the winner this week:

The Booker Prize has already had more than its share of controversy this year: first over changing the rules to allow any author writing in English to enter, a phrase that has been widely interpreted to mean “Americans”. As an American myself, I don’t find the prospect of Americans joining things especially horrifying. I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passports an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.

More MB Prize controversies

  1. whether the judges skim read the 156 submitted novels – Sarah Churchwell says they don’t!
  2. the role of the judges to correct the institutional sexism of the publishing industry and of reviewers – is sexism revealed by longlisting only three out of 13 writers (although 2 of the six shortlisted)?

Other Literary Prizes

The revised rules set off journalists’ concerns about other prizes as well. In March George Saunders won the new Folio Prize. Jane Gardam was the only British writer who made the shortlist.

  • Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
  • Schroder by Amity Gaige (America)
  • Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf (America)
  • The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (America)
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
  • A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (America)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (America)

131 A girl cover105 Baileys Women'sAnd what about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction? A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from Ireland, was also shortlisted for this prize, and it won. It’s a very good book. The others came from a reassuringly wide range of female writers:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (India-America)
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Ireland)
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (America)

Crisis, what crisis?

AS Byatt was quoted in the fuss about standards in national literature: she was a judge for the Folio Prize and a previous Man Booker Prize Winner herself (Possession), in short a grande dame of British literature. The sub injected urgency into the headline:

IS BRITISH FICTION IN CRISIS? AS Byatt bemoaned the lack of exciting UK authors being published today.

A little further down this piece we were given more detail. The American books, she told us, were ‘inventive and beautifully written. I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.’ The implication is that the energy is lacking in UK fiction.

Actually AS Byatt is making a point about publishers, and how in the UK publishers are more interested in making money than promoting literature. Who gets published? Who nominates novels for prizes? It’s the publishers. Publishers take note of prizes so they can be very important in a writer’s career. We should note that independent publishers are doing a great deal to promote high quality fiction in the UK.

We might add that one reason for any domination by US writers over British ones in the merry-go-round of prize winning is quite simply down to one fact: there are many more of them. Britain is a tiny country within the English-writing world.

So in conclusion the winners are …

Why should readers care about the nationality of the writer of prizes? We don’t! I’m with Sarah Churchwell, the nationality of the author is irrelevant. Prizes matter to publishers because they make money, and to writers, because the publicity means that more people will buy and read their novels. Readers like me, like prizes because they tell us who the industry, the small world of publishing believe are the best writers. I want to get knowledge about and access to good quality fiction. Prizes help, but they are not the whole story.

 

Do you have any views on the state of British fiction, or nationality in fiction writing? Or literary prizes?

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