Sunday reading: Elizabeth Gilbert and The Signature of All Things

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It is another cold and dark Sunday morning in Berlin, but I am early enough on the street, exploring Kneseneckstrasse and the streets around the Art Nouveau Renaissance Theatre. As usual, only a bookish talk can bring me both that early outside and to this Theatre: today, is about Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book: The Signature of All Things. The discussion – following the simple and a little bit boring format of readings here: a little bit of English, a little bit more of German, 2-3 questions of the moderator, ‘nice to meet you, good bye’ – takes places in a small salon with mirrors preserving the trace of old times. ‘It looks so European’, Gilbert says, and probably she is right. The place is crowded, with a mixed German-English audience, sipping their early wine or late coffee, with copies of Gilbert’s book placed strategically on the small little tables.

After two memoirs – the famous Eat Pray Love and Committed – she wrote a new novel, structured around the life and scientific courage of Alma Whittacker. The character was built using pieces of personality from women of science in the 18th-19th century. Such a strong figure, many steps ahead her time – with a relatively stable fortune – was ‘historically, scientifically and emotionally plausible’, she said. The choice of Alma’s scientific domain, was based on the historical reality that botany was the first science where the women were accepted, as the world of plants and flowers in general was close enough to their daily lives and not too serious to be considered a domain of confrontation with men. Alma will not go to universities or apply for a PhD, but published in academic articles and through the study of the humble moss, even saw ideas later developed by Darwin in the Evolution of Species. Moss was, said Gilbert, the equivalent of tapestry, a little punctilious domain where to find shelter from the daily chores ‘without getting crazy’.

Darwin’s theories, who still create a lot of debate, especially in the States, even though ulterior researches considerably extended and diversified the landscape of natural life, created a dramatic earthquake, asking men of religion to separate from science. The fine lines of the division are presented in the story, but in a very gentle and non-combative way. However, the title ‘The Signature of All Things’ was in the 17th century the name of a book of a German mystic, Jakob Böhme, who was looking to read the world of nature through different divine imprints. The scientists from a century later, were trying to read the history of the Earth through the evolution and transformations of plants. 

 

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Although the events of the book are placed almost 3 centuries ago, Gilbert did not tried to pretend she is an author from that times, telling instead the story with the humour and self-irony of our 21st. The research as such lasted around 3 years and one can easily see that the book is not only rich in exquisite old images of plants, but also in flawless historical and scientific references. 

As I finished the book only a couple of days after the reading, I enjoyed a lot the discussion about the writing process and the research, as well as about the explanations of some characters and literary choices. But more than that, Gilbert’s presence was by far one of the warmest and pleasant literary encounters of the last years. Every reader waiting for the signature was welcomed with a smile and a nice remark. I may call it a certain American direct way of being which is hard to feel, if every, during the majority of sober, serious European literary events. 

I asked her if she had the chance to see more from Berlin, and she said that not too much, but noticed the multicultural character of the city. After more than two month of travel for promoting the book, she continued the tour with Tübingen, an old university town in Germany, and my old beloved Zürich. 

I went back in the usual cold, and spent almost two hours reading the book, with a hot coffee and some little tasty treats from Philomenis, a cosy Mediterranean Sunday refuge on the neighbouring Knesebeckstrasse. As for the book, it is I strongly recommended! The audio version in German has 20 CDs, read by the interesting actress and children book author, Alexandra Helmig.  

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