The Principles of Uncertainty

Maira Kalman’s genius for divining the delicious Dadaism in everydayness has made her a successful author of magically absurd children’s books (behold this emblematic title: Swami on Rye). Her latest publication, The Principles of Uncertainty, may be her first solo book for adults, but gratefully, she hasn’t sobered up. Rather, she seems to have appropriated the Surrealist parlor game, Exquisite Corpse, as an organizational device, and the result is an unpredictable, puzzling, engrossing, courageously imperfect tour of the soup of her artistic id. Or, as her book flap asks, “What is this book?” and replies, “Who am I? Who are you? STOP IT FORGET IT This is a year in my life profusely illustrated, abounding with anguish, confusion, bits of wisdom, musings, meanderings, buckets of joie de vivre and restful sojourns.” Yes, dear readers, this is self-deprecating hype you can trust.

Whereas her late husband and collaborator, Tibor Kalman, used the graphic arts for in-your-face and very graphic social commentary, Maira Kalman’s manner of self-expression is ruminative and playful. She is at her thought-provoking best when juxtaposing various views literally and figuratively — as evidenced by her stupendous illustrations for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or her collaborations with National Lampoon cartoonist Rick Meyerowitz on “New Yorkistan” and the New Yorker Sub Culinary Map (all 468 stations were renamed for local food specialties). A fan of walking and wandering, she takes snapshots of people everywhere — on the street, or in the Hermitage Museum — and then will paint Fauvist primitives from her photographs. She gravitates to marginalia that puts new spins on the familiar: rarely acknowledged, executed Bolsheviks, Nannerl Mozart (Wolfgang’s sister), Marie-Antoinette’s best friend, international candy wrappers, the “things that fall out of books,” and even a found collection of “the mosses of Long Island.” Over the year, she chronicles her visits to her aunt in Tel Aviv and Paris parks, and, back in New York City, such distinguished 90-something figures as singer-philanthropist Kitty Carlisle Hart, French artist Louise Bourgeois, and photographer Helen Levitt.

Because this is a sketchbook (a complete compilation of her monthly blog, previously posted online with The New York Times over the 12 months between May 2006 and April 2007), you will not find such polished work as what has appeared in The New Yorker. Here she gives herself permission to mull over random, poignant observations — that her husband is buried nearby to Ira and George Gershwin; that the ice cream man still sells lemon ices on the beach in Tel Aviv; that pinky-pink Parisian pat‚ is an excellent cure for bad-dream malaise. With Kalman, her watch on the zeitgeist is always set on “Askew,” which is lucky for all of us who can’t tell you who we are, either. –