When Saul Steinberg passed away, we lost one of the greatest cartoonists, one whose virtuoso line work barely kept pace with his intellect. He played with the language of images in still fresh ways. For his subject, he chose America. Its mishmash of high and low cultures suited his talents, especially with the immigrants flowing into mid-century New York. Nonetheless, he never sampled their rich soup of language. What word balloons there were overflowed with drawings, fake calligraphy, or scrawls, nothing more. This linguistic acrobat remained mostly silent.
Thanks to the posthumous volume Reflections and Shadows, Steinberg has broken this silence with an eloquent book-length autobiography. He never conducted a major interview in English during his life, so this volume fills a major void. While written as a prose autobiography, the book represents a series of conversations between Steinberg and his close friend Aldo Buzzi, an Italian architect, publisher, and writer.
Buzzi guided the book’s construction, editing their talks into chapters for Steinberg to approve. While these conversations occurred in the mid-70s, not until 2001 did the Italian edition of this work appear. That’s a long wait, but the book never seems dated. Steinberg’s works maintained a remarkable consistency throughout his career, and the book largely concerns his early life and impressions of the United States.
While much better with cartoons, Steinberg proves an engaging raconteur. The book consists of keenly observed episodes concerning people from his native Romania to the rural Midwest. As an immigrant, he had a fine eye for the minute differences in cultures; as a satirist, he had a keener eye for human foibles. Of the many drawings included, his sketches of his family grow much richer when compared to his descriptions of these people, like the uncle no-one was allowed to talk about, or their smells, each unique.
Nonetheless, Steinberg draws the best portrait of himself. His favored themes grow clearer in reading, as well as the history that made his work possible in the first place. Like many Europeans Jews, his strange path out of Europe fascinates. His went through Italy and prison. He had been studying architecture, but shortly after the war broke out he was arrested and sent to a refugee camp. He describes the journey there as full of wonders: when curious girls see him held by the police, he recalls, “For women a prisoner is a romantic, adventurous character, who has done something unlawful and thus might even do something unlawful to them, or rather for them. …Admired and desired by those girls, I felt perfect.”
Just as perfectly observed are his thoughts on food. It lies at the root of culture; one might even say it is culture. He sums up his homeland’s history in a dish: “the cooking was Jewish, partly Polish-Russian, partly northern Romanian, Hungarian, Austro-Hungarian: paprika, vegetables.” He finds similar parallels in American restaurants, which he cannot stand, focused as they are on socialization rather than good food. To his European palate, “gastronomy in America, the restaurants, the taste of the nation are governed by the tastes of children.” He never speaks so directly in his cartoons. Here he seems at times like an English gentleman horrified at the colonies.
In the final analysis, Reflections and Shadows works best alongside Steinberg’s drawings and paintings. It sharpens our understanding of them. Steinberg may tell a good story, and he certainly has a fascination with words, but he seems uncomfortable relying on them. Fortunately, this book points to his others, with a bibliography of books and exhibition catalogues. Unfortunately, none remain in print in his adopted country. For an artist of his stature, working for The New Yorker no less, not to have had a major retrospective published soon after his death remains simply baffling. As fine as this book is, it is no substitute.
Soon after I wrote this article, a few years after Steinberg’s death, I bought a used copy of The Inspector. Like the rest of his books, it had been out of print for years. The bookstore’s owner commented that they were getting harder to find, and going up in price, too.
Recently, however, publishers have tried to make up for lost time, with the art book Saul Steinberg: Illuminations in 2006 and a 2005 edition of another collaboration by Buzzi and Steinberg. In this case, it is a The Perfect Egg, a book of Buzzi’s writings on, of all things, food.
(A version of this article originally appeared in The Comics Journal, #258 February 2004)