Review: Bento's Sketchbook

An ingenious connection to Jewry's most-celebrated exiled thinker forms the basis of John latest offering.

By Jonathan Beckman, May 10, 2011
Baruch Spinoza - "Bento"

Baruch Spinoza - "Bento"

By John Berger
Verso, £14.99

The Ethics, the masterpiece of Baruch Spinoza - or Bento, as he was known - was published only after his death from the papers that he left behind. But his sketchbook, which he took everywhere with him, was either not found or discarded as insignificant. When John Berger was given a sketchbook by a Polish friend, "I heard myself saying: This is Bento's!" From here, sprung this motley volume filled with energetic drawings, fleeting memories, political outrage and Spinozan moralia.

What binds all these together, if anything, is Berger's demand for attention, whether in drawing, writing or politics. The process of sketching changes the way that you observe the world: "At a certain moment - if you're lucky - the accumulation becomes an image - that's to say it stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence. Uncouth but a presence. This is when your looking changes." Similarly, Berger believes that the power of good fiction will continue to be felt after it has been read: "something of its way of giving attention… will remain with us and become our own. We will then apply it to the chaos of ongoing life, in which multitudes of stories are hidden."

Berger is brilliant at noticing, whether it be the hands of Mary Magdalene delicately touching the nailed and bleeding feet of Christ in a Crucifixion by Perugino, tentative and precise in their awareness that the slightest brush will cause pain; or the "haggard look of absence" in Géricault's portrait of a mad woman in the Salpêtrière.

In a comic interlude, Berger, sketching the Antonello Crucifixion in the National Gallery, is confronted by a security guard who demands that he remove his bag from the floor.

John Berger: melancholy merging with pleasure in ripeness

John Berger: melancholy merging with pleasure in ripeness

"Listen," says Berger reasonably, "let's call somebody from the Gallery staff and with a bit of luck they'll explain that it's OK." "Gallery staff have nothing to do with us," replies the guard "we're independent and our job is security." Berger is marched off the premises for his obstinacy.

A pall of elegy and melancholy nostalgia hangs over this book. Remembering Myra Hess playing Bach during the Second World War, Berger remarks with effortless lyricism: "The piano notes and chords seemed to us like a bouquet of flowers held together by a wire of death."

He repeats the refrain that, "we who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination."

There is something of Barthes's view that photography is orientated towards death here, but it is set off against a cheerier welcoming of ripeness, that finds expression in one of the first sketches of quetsches drooping off a tree.

A couple of quibbles: the early 20th-century translation of Spinoza that Berger quotes from is too literal to be clear. And Berger repeats the canard that 100,000 civilians were killed in one night during the Dresden bombings. But, though this book is expensive for its length - I read it in a couple of hours - Berger's sketches alone justify the price. They are alive with smudges and vigorous scribblings, the hurried lines catching nature in its imperfection.

Jonathan Beckman is the assistant editor of 'Literary Review'

Last updated: 10:00am, May 10 2011