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Art And Death Are Two Things At Once In 'How To Be Both'


It's hard to say where Ali Smith's new novel begins and ends - it depends on which copy your hold in your hands. They're the same story, but one begins in the middle. The other begins, if we were talking about a traditional novel, at the beginning. A 16-year-old girl named George is at the center of the story from the beginning, or eventually, depending on the version, or it's Francesco del Cossa, a Renaissance painter. George asks her mother what is the point of art, after their mother has taken George and her little brother to see the frescoes by del Cossa.

Within a few months, George will wonder what is the point of life after her mother dies. George remembers how she explained that there are often drawings concealed under the finished frescoes and told them that the first thing we see, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. "How To Be Both" is the latest novel by Ali Smith, who's been shortlisted by The Man Booker and Orange Prizes. She joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALI SMITH: It's a big pleasure, Scott, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why tell the story this way?

SMITH: I was really intrigued by the notion that a fresco, when we look at it on the wall, underneath those frescoes - 'cause when they take them off to restore them, which they now can do with much more ease than they could've for centuries - you find underneath these original versions of the pictures. And sometimes, those original versions are the same and sometimes they're really different. And, you know, it just intrigued me that there's the surface which we see, we see for all those hundreds and hundreds of years. And yet, below it, there's something else that we're looking at, that we can't see it. And I just was interested to see whether we can apply that structure to the novel.

SIMON: But I still don't get the two versions part.

SMITH: OK, so you imagine, right, that you are looking at a fresco and you're looking at something and it's on the surface, but you can't see what's behind it, but the thing behind it came first.

SIMON: So, like, if we were to see it in real life, if we could stay alive for three or four centuries...

SMITH: Yeah.

SIMON: ...We would see what's underneath first and then what's painted over last, whereas now we see what was painted over last as first...

SMITH: Exactly.

SIMON: ...And what was painted there first as last. Have I just confused the matter even more?

SMITH: (Laughter) No, certainly, if we're the artist, we see it from the very, very, very beginnings of things, which is why this book correlates to this (unintelligible) artist. But, you know, there's the great critic Walter Benjamin and he says a thing from the past and a thing from the present, when they come together it's not that the thing from the past throws light on the thing from the present or the thing from the present throws light on the thing from the past. It's that in their meeting they bring about a new immediacy, a now-ness, which is even more than present.

SIMON: In half the novels, you don't even know that George short for Georgia - that she's a girl for, you know, for half the story.

SMITH: It 'tis about the ways in which we simply take things for granted. Until we spend a little longer with them, perhaps we find out.

SIMON: Well, I wondered, do you think it changes the aspect of a story to go from what you might think is a mother and son relationship to a mother and daughter relationship?

SMITH: Absolutely, and I think it really changes the notion of a narrative to look at something coming first which otherwise might come second. It's a questioning of the very structure of the novel, which is really about, as Margaret Atwood says, one damn thing after another. You know, that's what plot is. It's like a further nudge to the novel to ask about the ways in which sequence and consequence work 'cause I have a feeling the moral of the novel, in a way, is consequence, and that the novel has a very moral form. I wanted to see what happened when we shuffled that notion of consequence.

SIMON: George is devastated by the loss of her mother. And she begins to find what really - I'll get you to finish that in watching what I think most of us can fairly call pornography.

SMITH: She finds engagement and she finds a moral engagement - that's I think what we'll say is the answer to that. Her mother is a - we should say this - her mother is a live wire. Her mother is a person who moves through the world responsibly and questioningly and also a political activist in the most playful of forms.

And so, her daughter's inherited both her playfulness and her kind of responsible-ness, and is already, at the age of 15, looking to see what pornography is, and then when she finds out what it really is, working against it in the only way that she can think to, which is as a witness of its horrors, really.

SIMON: How would you feel about a customer who walks into Waterstones in Piccadilly, or Barnes & Noble in New York, and says I want the Ali Smith novel, but give me the good version.


SMITH: OK, so I'm the bookseller, right? OK. Then the bookseller goes to the shelf and just takes any old copy off the shelf and gives it to the person.


SIMON: You'll love it.


SMITH: And the other thing I think about that is that I hold to, you know, there's something, Scott, in our relationship with books, which is about longevity. And there's a fabulous poem by the author Muriel Spark called "Authors' Ghosts" in which she describes coming downstairs in the middle the late and taking a book off the shelf and looking at it and thinking that's not the book I read. This isn't the end I remember. An author's ghost has been in there and has changed it.

So there's a constant aliveness in the form between us and it as we change. And I think great novels and great stories - they allow for our change and they come anew to us every time. Partly, I think, you know, that this play with the form of the novel was a gesture towards that, to the ways in which we'll be able to come back to things and with any luck, they'll hold.

SIMON: Ali Smith - her new novel "How To Be Both." Thanks much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you, Scott. It's been a total pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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