Tag Archives: Feminism

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

Having started as a writer of fiction, then achieved enormous success with her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert took her time returning to fiction; this work did not appear until 2013, but whatever portion of the intervening years was spent on it was very well spent.  The Signature of All Things is epic, despite being structured with utter simplicity, telling the stories of one poor-born English boy, Henry Whittaker (who grows himself into a wealthy merchant of plants and their derivatives over roughly the first third of the text) and of his Pennsylvania-born daughter, Alma, who devotes her life to botany or, more specifically, bryolgy – the study of mosses.

That structure ends up revealed as a metaphor for the novel’s real subject – wonder at a universe in which one can study even a tiny slice (the mosses growing on a particular cluster of rocks in one corner of one estate in nineteenth-century Philadelphia) and discover there an all-encompassing truth, a principle which drives and energizes the entire physical world.  In the same way Alma employs her microscope to understand the characteristics of individual specimens, then compares them to discover why they are so different, Gilbert examines those two lives, along with at most a dozen others who touch upon them, and so exposes uses universal experiences of human yearning for love, desire for a greater power, struggle for a personal place and meaningful occupation, importance of family, and more.  (One is reminded of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which was similarly simple in concept – the story of a single human life – but equally moving in exposing the complexity to which that formula actually equates).

This is a placid work, though never plodding. Early on one wonders at the author’s intent – there is no singular quest or mystery serving as through-line, no culminating dramatic conflict, no grail being sought, except the generalized pursuit of profit (Henry) and of knowledge (Alma). Even in that though, one can read a message: scarcity of nourishment breeds a desire for material sustenance and security, abundance allows the mind to search for other sorts of sustenance – the intellectual, the romantic and the spiritual. In that sense, Henry and Alma’s tale may be seen as an expansion upon Gilbert’s memoir – her characters must first eat, before they can worry about praying and loving. 

In that regard, it is interesting to note the other work Gilbert produced during the 7 years between Eat, Pray Love and this one: Committed, a memoir on the institution of marriage.  Of the several marriages portrayed here, Henry’s is one of utility and function, Alma’s a shattered dream of romance and connection, her sister Prudence’s one of sacrifice and duty… One wonders to what degree the aspiration which characterized the memoirs shaped the novel, then wonders again whether the bleak view of marriage portrayed here had anything to do with the forces which would end Gilbert’s own marriage a couple of years later – it just seems a stretch that the optimist of those two memoirs would portray the institution as she does here. None of which is to say this is a pessimistic story, or bitter or any such negative, but rather that it is one which leads away from romance as solution to life’s longings, and toward the search for something more encompassing and self-supporting.

This is a sizeable book (500 pages or so in print) and contains much detail which might be off-putting to some readers (and must have taken substantial effort to compile and incorporate).  For those who share a love of the physical world, though, or simply enjoy learning new things, that is an attraction rather than an obstacle.  It is also an integral factor in bringing us along on Alma’s journey from microcosm to macrocosm. 

Well researched, well written, exceedingly well-intentioned, this is a marvel and well-worthy of some grand prize. Tis pity it did not make a greater splash in the literary world.

The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad

Social anthropology which reads as well as good fiction, Seierstad’s book provides a valuable glimpse into lives which could be centuries removed from contemporary US culture.  Despite Sultan Khan’s love of books and hope for a freer Afghan culture, his idea of gender roles – and that of nearly everyone else we meet here – is medieval at best.  Women are seen as chattel, servants and baby-makers with no rights, no autonomy; virtually no ‘selves’.  This is the most heartbreaking aspect of the Khan family’s story, but far from the only one.

Poverty is another focus of Seierstad’s, as illustrated in the sub-story of a carpenter, trying to support his extended family on small wages.  That he turns to theft is condemnable but not difficult to understand or sympathize with.  One ends up taking small relief that he is at least not mutilated under Sharia law, but is the destitution of his family really any less-cruel a punishment? An apt reminder that economic opportunity is a bedrock freedom somewhere down there with freedom of speech and thought.

Literature often shines a light on our own lives, asking us to question them, and reading this book is such a case.  Are the poor and disadvantaged of our own time and place any less confined than those of early-aughts Kabul?  Are the women of that Texas religious compound, that Utah plural-marriage household, that Bronx tenement or Brooklyn Hassidic neighborhood any less limited? Well, yes, actually; though industrialized western societies have far to go, these Afghans have farther.  One can only hope that exposure to some good points of a more ‘modern’ culture will gradually erode the stultifying lid which encloses their lives.

Those thoughts were put down in 2008, when it was still marginally-possible to hope that a new US administration could salvage something out of the chaos wrought by our invasion of this battleground nation.  Transcribing them now, one is struck by the continuing tragedy that whatever progress any segments of Afghan society may have made in the ensuing dozen years of Western politico-military involvement there is as precarious as ever, what with the Taliban resurgent, a Faustian bargain for peace in the offing and pluralistic, liberal societies battling for survival around the world, even to the halls of the US Capitol bldg.   “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance,” runs a line widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson (though the historians at Monticello deny it).  The line is true enough, but worth remembering is that the operative word there is ‘vigilance,’ not ‘war.’  And that the sentiment might even be improved by replacing that with some other intellectual posture, such as ‘objectivity’, ‘questioning’ or ‘critical thought,’ even if that would cost some of its bold, heroic ring.

(That the real-life bookseller – whose name Seierstad had obscured in hopes of protecting his family’s privacy – later rejected her portrayal and very-publicly fought the author in Norwegian court, only to lose, lends yet another layer of complexity and sadness to the entire business)

And the beat goes on.