UEA Spring Literary Festival 2015: Ali Smith

This is the second post that details my experience attending lectures/Q&As as part of the University of East Anglia’s Spring Literary Festival 2015. On Wednesday 18th March the festival played host to novelist Ali Smith.

Everything sooner or later transforms into stories

Ali Smith, Harriet Martineau Lecture, May 2013

Smith’s latest book, How to Be Both, simultaneously explores the present and the past; the alive and the dead; what it means to be a boy and a girl. The novel is most distinguishable by its dual structure – the way in which the book is comprised of two reversible narratives. This unusual form stemmed from an unusual chain of events as lecture ideas were turned into fiction, fiction turned into a book (Artful), and a book turned into a podcast. It was a discussion in the podcast about Artful that prompted the idea that evolved into the basis of How to Be Both. The basic idea was that novels cannot say things simultaneously, meaning that they can describe events that are happening in-situ but they cannot physical say all these things at once since the acts of both reading and writing occur in a linear, ordered fashion. Smith pondered the idea of a book that was in reversible sections, and the young publicist and older guy working for the publisher agreed that is was a “cool” idea.

This idea of duality also occurs in art, where the frescoes of Ferrara, Italy depict layers of paintings. It was this art form that pushed Smith to think of the two-fold nature as a narrative form. From this art emerges the character of Francesco del Cossa, the name taken from the real-life Italian renaissance artist responsible for a series of striking frescoes. Little is known about del Cossa, an ambiguity that enabled Smith to create her own Francesco directly from her imagination.

The second narrative comes from the 15 year old girl named George, whose mother has just died. The two accounts twist around each other and intertwine, such as the George’s trip with her mother to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa’s strange, humorous visions of a teenage girl who uses ‘”a votive tablet”‘ (iPad). Smith’s witty character continues to pervade the novel, such as when George tells her mother in Italy that she is ‘”…appalled by history, its only redeeming feature being that it tends to be well and truly over.”‘ The contrasting styles of the narrative, i.e. the poetic quality of the Francesco passages and the more conventional plotting of George’s tale, coexist alongside one another to hold the reader’s attention until the very last page.

It is this unique form that makes How to Be Both the most exciting book that I have read for a long time, and so I urge you to pick up a copy too!


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