Maira Kalman’s collage/slam book/illustrated diary The Principles of Uncertainty probably deserves better than it’s going to get here. This latest completed read from my 2013 reading list has put-up job written (and drawn) all over it.
While this book has charm, it also has smarm in abundance. Only a New Yorker with “the right connections” – in publishing, in society, in “being a New Yorker” could have gotten such a book published.
Kalman’s art is delightful (she is a children’s book illustrator/writer), but her musings on the difficulties and vicissitudes of being of Russian descent, Jewish, and a New Yorker are predictable in a way: she is impressed by traditional NYC signs of success/quirkiness, she loves and misses her dead relatives in that neurotic/theatrical way that only a Russian can, her Jewish guilt/rage/sense of impending doom both sustains her and torments her.
The illustrations (photos and paintings and paintings of photos) show the influence of Matisse, Chagall, Modigliani, and Toulouse-Lautrec as well as Henri Cartier-Bresson (this latter she consciously acknowledges). They’re interesting – and some are indeed arresting in the best way. But the writing, which waffles among diary musings, child’s picture book repetitions of lines, and neurotic ranting, cloys, annoys, and mostly toys with the reader.
Like a good New Yorker moving in the right intellectual and social circles, she name drops – Russian authors (Tolstoy, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Nabokov); philosophers and scientists (Spinoza, Kepler, Freud, Wittgenstein, Chamisso); celebrities past and present (George Gershwin, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Charlie Chaplin); great “serious” performing artists (Toscanini, Horowitz). These aren’t the only names dropped – but they’re a good sample to allow Kalman to display that she’s had the right education to “appreciate” life and culture in NYC appropriately.
And in a way, a very real way, The Principles of Uncertainty is just that: an appreciation of New York and New Yorkishness by a New Yorker. Kalman’s statement in the book is something along these lines: “I’m a real New Yorker, I live a real New Yorker’s life, I’m quirky and artistic, and though dint of talent and hard work I’ve made a place for myself in New York art and culture.”
Yeah, okay, that’s great – but I’m not sure that her achievement, such as it is, entitles her to major publisher support for what is essentially a coffee table book that one could read while waiting to go in for one’s analyst appointment. Or maybe it does. After all, I’m a Southern writer and we’re not exactly known for being much more than critics/apologists for all things Southern – good, bad, idiotic.
So maybe I’m being too hard on Kalman. She kvetches, which is annoying, but she draws wonderful pictures, which is good. I’m sure her primary audience, fellow New Yorkers, find her delightful in a quirky way.
Not, as another famous New York kvetcher once observed, that there’s anything wrong with that.
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