When asked why she became a painter and writer, Maira Kalman, author of “The Principles of Uncertainty,” an illustrated memoir, says, “I can’t do anything else. I clean very well. I’d like to be a maid for the Duchess of Devonshire.”
That Kalman, who will be appearing Oct. 30 at Los Angeles’ downtown Central Library for one of its ALOUD events, would seek, even somewhat jokingly, a job outside the United States is no surprise. She has lived in Rome, was born in Israel to Russian-born parents and now lives in New York. She is also a Francophile, and the bold use of color in her exquisite paintings shows a clear connection to the work of Matisse and Cezanne.
As much as she is celebrated as a painter and illustrator — her work has adorned the cover of The New Yorker and has been exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan — Kalman says, “I guess I consider myself a writer.”
“Principles” is not her first book. She has previously written and illustrated a dozen children’s books and, as befitting her New Yorker pedigree, she illustrated a new version of Strunk & White’s classic, “The Elements of Style,” a text whose introduction was first published by The New Yorker.
A series of ruminations on life and death, as well as desserts, hats and walking, “Principles” conspicuously invokes Proust in its stream-of-consciousness style. But Proust is not the only literary figure who turns up in Kalman’s text. She also writes about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka; visits a friend named Molly Bloom; calls her daughter Milton, and draws a painting of an androgynous Nabokov, wearing what appears to be lipstick and women’s shoes, while reading a book on the science of butterflies and moths.
In fact, Kalman only writes about one painter: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who painted as a hobby, but of course is better remembered as a wartime statesman, orator and writer, and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
There are occasions when Kalman suspends her penmanship, idiosyncratic in its inconsistent use of capital letters within words, a bit harsher than the soft lines that often characterize women’s handwriting and types captions for illustrations.
She explains that she typed the chapter on February because “I didn’t want the handwriting to be lyrical, since February is such an impossible month…. It’s cold and gray and sad and rainy.”
She also sometimes includes blurry photographs of people walking, instead of her gouache-on-paper paintings. “I take hundreds of photos a week,” said this cross-disciplinary artist, who also has designed fabrics, clocks and umbrellas and is now working on an opera of her book with composer Nico Muhly.
A strain of melancholy runs through “Principles” — in the tales of the death of her husband and aunt, the Holocaust and Israel’s recent war against Hezbollah. But Kalman, who was in Israel last year during the war, seems to be heartened by the rudeness of an Israeli, who in the midst of the conflict flicks the remains of rotting cherries off his car onto her shirt. And she notes that the ice cream man is still selling his wares on the beach, and the secondhand bookstore and flea market in Tel Aviv are still filled with customers.
The final illustration of a river rippling down a falls into a pool leaves us with an image of tranquility and vibrancy. On the flip side of the page is a message from a World War II poster that still resonates today, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Maira Kalman will appear in conversation with Louise Steinman on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m. For information call (213) 228-7025.