Tag Archives: National Gallery

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


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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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Amsterdam Stories

142 Amsterdam BridgeAmsterdam, city of canals, bicycles and Anne Frank. I love it. In 2014 I visited twice, seduced by flights from Exeter Airport and by the reopening of the Rijksmusem. On both occasions I spent a whole day in the museum. Before the second visit I found a list of the ten best books set in Amsterdam, compiled by Malcolm Burgess. I chose two to read while I was there.

The book that dominates Amsterdam is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. But I’m going to sidestep it. I don’t underestimate its significance, charm and poignancy but Amsterdam is much more than the city where Anne Frank lived, hid, wrote and died.142 Am flowers


Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Translated from the Dutch by Adrienne Dixon.

142 RitualsCees Nooteboom is, according to Malcolm Burgess, the greatest living Dutch novelist and Rituals is his masterpiece. It won the Pegasus Prize in 1981, having been published the previous year. I have to admit that I had not heard of Cees Nooteboom before. I think that this is because I am out of touch with European literature.

I found this a very interesting but troubling book. The Amsterdam setting is without special significance, although it had to be ituated somewhere and I did enjoy recognising some of the places mentioned in the novel.

I found time in the novel was a challenging aspect. There are three episodes related in Rituals, associated with three different people, the narrator, Inni Wintrop, and Arnold and Philip Taads. The Intermezzo is the first movement, set in 1963, the father Arnold Taads in 1953 and then the son leapfrogging ahead to 1973. It is an interesting approach for a novelist and highlighted dimensions of the relationships between the three men in an unsettling way.

The three men have some things in common, all attempt suicide; all try to find answers to the question of how to live by adopting the rituals of the title. Some rituals are formal or recognised: the Roman Catholic Church, Japanese aestheticism and tea rituals, Hari Krishna and nihilism. Others are rituals placed on life by the individuals to give it form: chasing women, selling art, organisation of time, daily rituals and so forth.

Cees Nooteboom appears to be asking how we make meaning from being alive, and how some attempts to understand life are flawed, meaningless and lead to nothing. He is also examining how time affects our understanding. I find this description of the older Tadd’s routines to be nightmarish.

Time, Inni learned that day, was the father of all things in Arnold Taad’s life. He had divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day with unrelenting sternness. Had he been older, Inni would have known the fear that dominated Arnold Taads demanded its tithes in hours, half hours, and quarter hours, randomly applied points of fracture in the invisible element through which we must wade as long as we live. It was as if, in an endless desert, someone had singled out a particular grain of sand and decided that only there could he eat and read. Each of these preappointed grains of sand called forth, with compelling force, its own complementary activity. A mere ten millimetres further and fate would strike. Someone arriving ten or fifteen minutes early or late was not welcome. The maniacal second hand turned the first page, played the first note on the piano, or, as now, put a pan of goulash on the stove on the last stroke of seven. (84)

This kind of philosophising seems to me to be a European phenomenon. Think of Meursault in Camus’s L’Etranger, dealing with the nothingness of life by committing a random murder.


Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black.

142 R's whoreThis novel is a complete contrast to Rituals: it was written in French in 1999, by a woman and is set in the seventeenth century.

The narrator is Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s mistress after the death of his wife Saskia. As the title indicates she is condemned by the elders of Amsterdam. Her story begins when she arrives in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, and takes us through the birth to her daughter to her death. She addresses Rembrandt much of the time. It’s an intimate account of the domestic life of the great master, his business arrangements and financial difficulties, his social relations and daily life in Amsterdam in the mid seventeenth century. Here’s an example taken from her early days in the house.

I always used to look down when I went in to see you. Even when Geertje sent me to your studio in her place with the herrings and the beer. I’d knock gently, three little taps at the door. Come in, you said, and I’d go in. And I’d wait, holding the plate and pitcher, and behind your back I’d watch the picture emerge from your painting. I could see that great greasy crust on the palette of nameless colours, and bladders of paints and pots of oil that smelled of garlic, the hen’s feathers, and lavender. I’d learnt to breathe slowly with my mouth open, and my eyes no longer stung.

Barent Fabritius had given me his hand and brought me right into the pupils’ studio, where the artist who crushes the paint watches the oils heat until they become clear; then he can break up the colour into them. Not too hot, make sure the hen’s feather doesn’t fry in the turpentine. Beside him, an apprentice is stirring the bones and the skin of a rabbit till they melt in a bain-marie – the steam coming off it’s disgusting. If they’re mixed with powdered chalk they’ll turn into skin glue. (19-20)

The research is used to make clear the concreteness of painting and etching, and a visit to the Rembrandtshuis makes clear the physical effort, the smells, textures, shapes and colours with which Rembrandt spent his days. In this way the novel drew me into the life of old Amsterdam and its people. And it was authentic enough to add to the enjoyment of my visit.

The novel’s theme is the importance of art and love over form and narrow-mindedness. But we are reminded that in the end even fate, death, will get you – for some in the form of the plague.

And I will also enjoy the National Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works (until 18th January and later in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum).

my desk this morning.

my desk this morning.

I may have started a new series of books and cities. The first two posts were

Tales from the Vienna Streets and

Berlin Stories

I’m planning a trip to Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) next year. Any suggestions for related reading? Or any other books set in Amsterdam that you would recommend?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books

Write one picture

First find your post cards. Not so easy when you have just moved house and got thoroughly bored with emptying large cardboard boxes. I had to up-end myself into a not yet unpacked tall box to find my collection of post cards. I keep them in a shoe box, which if it wasn’t made for shoes might have been made for pcs.

It is some time since I came across the National Gallery’s brilliant programme for primary kids and their teachers called Take One Picture. It’s been going for about ten years. I have seen primary classes do amazing, inventive, creative, studious, collaborative, fanciful activities stimulated by this programme. The teachers attend a training session and then return to their class to help their students explore an aspect of the primary curriculum. It might be geometry, music, maths, play acting, story telling, drawing, science … I try to visit the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery every year to enjoy the inventiveness of the school children. I will never forget the play based on the little girl with the hoop in Renoir’s picture of the umbrellas.

reni1 004

Write one picture is a writing activity. You might have come across versions of it on writing courses. The purpose is to stir the imagination. The tutor gives each participant a postcard and then allows ten minutes or so of silence while they write away: a story, a description, something NOT connected with the picture … I see it as a version of ‘Take One Picture’, an invitation to explore and practice writing in different genres, from a variety of points of view, description, dialogue, character, and so on.

For an example for this blogpost I chose a painting by Whistler (on display in Tate Britain) called Miss Cicely Alexander, Harmony in Grey and Green, dated 1872. First I made a list of 10 ways in which I could use this picture to practice writing:

  1. In the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton
  2. Description of the dress, the setting, the girl’s character
  3. A story from the perspective of the subject, Cicely
  4. A meditation on grey and green in words
  5. A story in the 3rd person,
  6. A story from the perspective of someone looking at the painting
  7. Cicely looking back at her portrait after 50 years
  8. The picture as an object in a story
  9. A scene that includes the reaction of someone seeing the painting in the gallery
  10. A letter regarding the commission of the work.

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872-4 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

With some trepidation I offer some starts to such exercises that I have undertaken recently. These, please note, are responses to prompts, not examples of my polished, edited prose. (Of course I edited them a bit. My inner critic would not let me expose raw text – ‘shitty first drafts’ as Anne Lamott would say in Bird by Bird). The activity is a starter, to prompt the imagination and some writing.

  1. The older brother’s comments.

It always makes me laugh, that hat! D’you remember? If I’ve got it right, it belonged to the Head Gardener’s daughter. It was-

Yes, but Mama had given it to h-

-the only one anyone could find that was green. He insisted on green, that Mr Whistles. Hah! The hat of a gardener’s daughter. How he liked a joke!

Yes but I didn’t have to wear-.

And the feather. I think that came from the milliner’s ragbag.

Yes, but she made the most expensive-

Another of Mr Whistles’s joke. And the veil on your dress!

2. Cecily’s thoughts as she poses

Last year this dress was everything I wanted. Last year! This year it’s just too young. And I hate the way he makes me pose. It’s an older person’s pose. Too young dress, too old pose. Nurse keeps telling me not to put not to slouch. Always not to do something. Oh and now he wants me to hold that hat. It’s not even mine! At least I don’t have to wear it. I wonder if he would notice if I swapped my feet around, put the right one in front? This is so boring, boring, boring. Nurse says again, ‘don’t sulk dear, wind’ll change’.

  1. Cecily’s thoughts 50 years later.

My brother has asked me what he should do with the portrait father had painted of me when I was 14. He’s terminally ill, my brother, and wishes to settle things. We are both in our seventies now, and live worlds away from our childhoods. I inspected the painting as I left his house. How surely even sulky I look, yet at that time I had no cause to be unhappy (except for standing in that frock so still, so long and being fourteen). All the unhappiness of my marriage, the failure of the meat packing business, the Great War which took both my grandsons, and my daughter who died in the influenza epidemic just as it ended. Papa had money, and wanted to show it off, but he behaved like a medieval king in the matter of his daughter’s marriage. Mr Hetherington-Wallace was not as good a match for me as he was for Papa. Papa would have been even more horrified than my son and son-in-law at my involvement with the suffragists. I never wore that hat. It was Mama’s. Mr Whistler purloined it for his picture. It made my hand ache to hold it. Give it to a museum, I told my brother. It’s not me.

  1. Whistler’s letter

Dear Mr Alexander,

I am in receipt of your commission for a portrait of your daughter Cicely. Honoured as I am that you have asked me to undertake this commission following your visit to my studio last month I need to make clear my terms. I do not paint mere portraits, rather studies, etudes in paint. While I fully understand that you wish to favourably place your daughter on the market in society, and a portrait by such an eminent artist as myself would achieve this aim, I have my own purposes for undertaking any commission. My study of colour could be furthered by such an undertaking only so far as your daughter is pretty and well dressed. I desire that she will wear a white dress, and I will visit your house next Thursday to choose the room in which to engage in my art and to arrange any accoutrements for the sitter. I demand complete quiet, no interruptions and absolute silence from my subjects, especially when they are scarcely more than children.

If you can see your way to agreeing to my terms, then I will accept the commission and beg leave to commence in six weeks on the Tuesday morning.

Yours etc


You will notice that I have strayed outside my list, but that I have picked up different voices, different time perspectives, different narrative frames for these little pieces. I should make clear that I have not tried for historical accuracy as I don’t know what happened to Cecily Alexander, and whether she had an older brother; I have been inventive. I notice that it allows for playfulness, or to focus on something out of the obvious.

The activity taps into an amazing aspect of writing, in this case rendering in words something visual. And, in turn, it encourages me to look more attentively at this painting.

Do you have a favourite and/or productive writing activity?


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