on ‘how to be both’ by ali smith

F158e712-00d3-4b1f-8a71-9ab5937d8e94Nathaniel Popkin at Public Books:

How to Be Both, the sixth novel by the Scottish writer Ali Smith, is an astounding work of art, so exquisite in its composition that reading it feels like staring into a Decadent painting, bound and endless all at once. This feeling is both the product of the book’s composition and simultaneously its silky essence. Depending on the version the reader has in her hands, she will start, either as I did, with the chatty ghost of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa (1435/6–1477/8), landed back on earth in the winter of 2014 in a room with 16-year-old George, whose mother has just died, or with George a few months previous, driving in Ferrara, Italy, with her mother and brother to see del Cossa’s greatest work. The book is about the duality of sexuality and of existence in general, a theme reinforced by the publisher’s decision to print two versions, reversing the order of the two interrelated but distinct parts. Most profoundly, How to Be Both depicts the power of art to produce within art maker and art observer alike capacities we don’t always realize are already there.

“Is there spring in purgatorium?,” purrs del Cossa’s ghost while standing in the place he has landed, room 55 of the National Gallery in London, where his painting Saint Vincent Ferrer hangs. A boy stands before the painting; Francesco can tell that the boy, really the girl George, “faces a door he can’t pass through.”

more here.