Maira Kalman’s New York: Goethe Rides the F Train

By Maira Kalman
The Penguin Press, 325 pages, $29.95

Let’s say it’s raining. You enter a shop for a bowl of soup. While you wait, a woman sits down at another table. She’s wearing the most dazzling, improbable, patent leather heels. You can’t take your eyes off them, because they light up the room, and quicken the arrival of your order. You go over and thank her. How could you not, after what you’ve seen?

Or let’s say it’s early December 2001. Almost three months since Sept. 11, and everyone is a wreck. At the newsstand (the doctor’s office, your mailbox), an issue of The New Yorker appears, sporting the famous map of “New Yorkistan”—the city and boroughs reimagined as the multitude of tribelike neighborhoods they often resemble. Gazing at the map’s riot of place names, you exhale, for the first time in months. How could you not, after what you’ve seen?

It’s May 2006. The Iraqi War is in its fourth year. The New York Times begins running a monthly blog on TimesSelect. The person offering this work is Maira Kalman, illustrator, writer and erstwhile cartographer.

If you’ve missed Ms. Kalman’s work until now—the children’s books; the dispatches from Fashion Week; the decades of collaboration with her late husband, designer Tibor Kalman; New Yorkistan (with Rick Meyerowitz, co-cartographer); illustrations for the latest edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—well then, you no longer have an excuse. The Principles of Uncertainty is here: a blog given unprecedented new life.

“What is this Book?” Ms. Kalman asks, on the front flap. “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.” Or seen another way: If you need someone to explain the connections between geography, history, philosophy, millinery, Bolsheviks, moss, all the stops on the F Train, stick insects, flamboyant desserts and what Goethe’s writings look like when embroidered, you’ve come to the right place.

Take off the dust jacket and read the book’s front and back covers. It’s a reproduction of the blog’s opening salvo, from the December 2006 entry titled “Ich Habe Genug” (“I have enough”). In this installment, the trail of crumbs leads you from Kitty Carlisle Hart’s apartment to George Gershwin’s final resting place to the not-unreasonable idea that the Barricinis should open a candy outlet near the family mausoleum. Put the dust jacket back on, and run your hands over it. I defy you not to fall into a trance.

Do not let the Proustian elements, filtered through the sensibility of Matisse, lead you to think that this book is a buffet of festivity. The Principles of Uncertainty has much restrained pathos mixed with the joy. “The People. THE PEOPLE. Everyone Looks so exalted, or so wretched, Or so spiffy, So Funny, So Splendid.” To paraphrase van Gogh, Ms. Kalman has a blazing hearth in her soul; thanks to her paintings and narrative, passers by see more than a wisp of smoke from the chimney.

“How are we all so Brave as to take step after step? Day after day? How are we so optimistic, so careful Not to trip and yet Do trip and then Get up and say O.K.”

Ms. Kalman collects things. (As if you hadn’t guessed.) These objects (“tangible evidence of history, memory. Longing, delight”) embody two working definitions of culture. On the one hand, you have the artifacts, the material portions of society. On the other, there are the intangibles—the patterns, meanings, symbolic actions and institutions that are the organizing force of society. Ms. Kalman might say (has said, of other projects) that she’s looking for insane, inspired and beautiful stuff.

Though you might recoil from the surface chaos of so many things, look closer: Here’s a suitcase owned by a follower of Gurdjieff; here’s Goethe revealed as having a roaring sweet tooth; here’s the story of how 10 lemon tarts came to be traded for a cigarette case of significant sentimental value. Here, as part of “The Impossibility of February,” is a man shown dancing on salt (there he is again, on the cover, chosen from all the hundreds of possible images). Should we even attempt to understand this? Is this premeditated or spontaneous? Is it sublime action, achieved by means of the ordinary? Or is he just going nuts from the endless winter?

Would it interest you to know that Maira Kalman stops people on the street to inquire about the provenance of their hats? More often, she simply walks behind them, letting their humanity soak into her. This affection recalls the longing compassion felt by the angel Damiel, for the people of Berlin, in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Ms. Kalman alternately rejoices and aches for individuals, and for the whole of humanity. Unlike Damiel, she’s here now, in full color, in human form. An angel of the highest order.

“There is so much to do.

Let me go with you. Lead the way.

Let me accompany you for as long as it suits.

Let us be frozen in time.

Let us float into the future. I am right behind you.”

She has kept the likenesses of Dame Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton’s sister and Vladimir Horowitz from extinction. There’s a 16-page appendix (including a recipe for honey cake, and every character from part one of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Well, why not?). She revives words rarely seen in print (frangipani! cherubim!).

So in response to the question “What is this book?”, I wish to offer the following: This book, displaying the author’s impressions of human endeavor, reflects the same sensitivity to shifting mood as the light captured in paint in the late 19th century. The range of these endeavors—“Every emotion. Every condition. Every glory”—has seldom been presented so honestly and appealingly. Within this work, as much literary as artistic, one finds the assurance (the certainty!) that the human condition is inescapable but not insurmountable.

We dance on salt, and on pink, pinker, pinkest ruffled bedspreads. We eat egg sandwiches, and also seven-layer chocolate cake. And then we go over to thank somebody for wearing dazzling shoes in the rain.

How could you not, after what you’ve seen?


Barbara Yablon Maida is a teacher of geography and environmental science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Maira Kalman’s New York: Goethe Rides the F Train