Maira Kalman on life, identity and happiness in a magnificent book that praises joie de vivre

Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty

Published 2007 by Penguin Books, 326p


I have discovered Maira Kalman when I read The Illustrated Elements of Style, a guide to writing style. As a non-native English speaker I often have the concern that I may make terrible mistakes when writing or speaking so I still have a daily routine that includes new words or grammatical exceptions of the exceptions. Of course my daughter has become a very good teacher to me.  I remember when I first came to Australia how odd the accent seemed and how difficult it was to follow the extremely fast speaking.

Coming back to Maira Kalman, I think she is a great mind and an exceptional artist. Her parents were Russian, she was born in Tel Aviv and they all moved to New York when Maira was a child.

The Principles of Uncertainty follows a year in Kalman’s adult life; it is a mix of words and illustrations that concludes with an invitation to reflect on living.

My brain is exploding. Trying to make sense out of nonsense, trying to tell you everything (everything?) and all the while time is fleeing. And the air around me vibrates with so many images. 


Maira Kalman is first of all a visual storyteller. She observes the world and then imitates it in a process of learning and understanding it.

What can I tell you? The Realization that we are All (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief – isn’t that the central premise of everything? It stops me dead in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain frozen? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.

She finds most of her answers in walking. Somehow getting out of herself she brings the world closer in her daydreaming state and in her long walks.

My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place. A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set. A hat. Good shoes. A nice pleated (green?) skirt for the occasional seaside hotel afternoon dance.

Wandering about, painting and taking pictures of the people becomes her glory, her essential activity to understand life. Just by looking around you can understand emotion, individuality (and the little eccentricity that everybody has), hope. The city (New York) is inspirational and she finds the people splendid in their rush or struggling, or quietness.

And I am curious about all the little things that make up a life.

Heaven is on Earth, Maira Kalman says. She finds it in the long discussions in her aunt’s house in Tel Aviv talking about family, Russian writers and history. She sees it in good food, good restaurants and bookstores, in music or in her collections of postcards, empty boxes or mosses.


Kalman is smart, humorous (from her Russian origins, she says) and profound. When she went to Israel with her sister for a wedding, during the-world-is-doomed war with Lebanon, there was a funny yet very substantial scene. A man was cleaning his car of rotting cherries and flicked one accidentally on her white shirt. The conclusion:

Is there room for pettiness during a war?

Are you kidding?

Continuously self-educating herself, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes recalling cherished moments of her past,  Maira Kalman  opens her heart and with warmth, honesty and humour and let us see her dialogue (or monologue? or silence?) with existence.



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