Little things that feed the flame

‘The Signature of All Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

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You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others– why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion… but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history– added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.


First of all, I have to say I have not started on the Russian classics yet (see my ‘flower-pot list’). I have not chosen a book. Nor have I decided whether to read it in English or Russian. The latter, being the original language, is, of course, preferable. However, I am questioning whether my knowledge of the language, after years of absence of proper practice of it, is suficient to get the most out of the book. The question is whether my understanding and enjoyment of the piece of literature will be hindered less by reading the original without always grasping the detail and nuance or by reading the translation into the language at which I am much more fluent now. I suppose as an ex-translator I should trust the work of my distant colleagues. However, I am very tempted to give Russian a try. Anyway, the year is young and I still have plenty of time to make these decisions.

Back to here and now. The quote at the start of this post belongs to Alma Whittaker, the woman of keen mind, the interesting protagonist of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel The Signature of All Things. (The author is best known for her highly popular memoir Eat, Pray, Love. I have to admit I have not read it and thus had no preconceptions as to what to expect of this novel of hers.) The Signature of All Things stretches throughout some 500 pages and over one hundred years. From a short newspaper review, I got the impression this would be a story of a woman with a scientific mind in a male dominant world and her struggle to deviate from the certain path a woman was expected to take in the nineteenth century society. However, it was so much more than that. The novel tackles the issues of scientific vs divine, gender roles, love, sacrifice, happiness, sexuality, miracles, struggles of life. Amazing feat for a story set in the times so remote and different from our own. And yet, amazingly, so similar…

Alma Whittaker is born into a rich and famous family that values critical thinking, logical argument, and stoicism. Unlike her adopted sister, she is not pretty. She is too outspoken and educated to be considered marriage material. It would have been easy to resort to stereotypes here, but Gilbert produces a well-rounded character who, despite her sharp mind and scientific pursuits, has a yearning for human connections as well as sexual intimacy. Familial connections are complicated and have a few lessons of their own.

Numerous times while reading, I caught myself in awe at the amount of research the author had to have done for this book. Through the life story of this one extraordinary person, Elizabeth Gilbert beautifully opens the door to the age of Change where

 It used to be that god was revealed in the wonders of nature; now God was being challenged by those same wonders. Scholars were now required to choose one side or the other.

I think it is so easy to get caught up in the idea that ours is such a unique era, so much changing. And it is, at least in the Western world, with technology alone affecting all areas of our lives. However, this book gave me a precious glimpse into the nineteenth century – another age of great change, of science unfolding, of religious superstitions questioned, of the foundation of people’s worldviews shaken. It must have been both scary and exciting, just like today.

After a long break, this again was the book that kept me awake at night reading page after page, thirsty to know how the story unfolds. Any book that manages to do that is a good book ‘in my books’.

What have you been reading lately? Anything that keeps you up at night, impatiently turning page after page?


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