Time Out's Chris Boun reviews John Berger's Bento's Sketchbook. Focusing on the connection between noticing and drawing, Boun understands the volume's images as emblematic of possible ways of seeing:
Berger's entanglement with [Bento] here isn't so much a philosophical treatise as a reflex-response, a metaphysical mood-board of languorous illustrations and literary vignettes that he bounces of apposite extracts from Spinoza. It's a novel and captivating approach to a difficult realm of thought, which Berger begins as a flirtation - as he reflects on everyday encounters with neighbours, with roadkill, with authoritarian security staff in an art gallery - and gradually manoeuvres into an intimate minuet with Spinoza's key work, the 'Ethics'.
As such, 'Bento's Sketchbook' is a perfect introduction, not the arcane mathematical logic of Spinoza's metaphysics but to its intuitive, sensual component. And by the end Berger's hunch that the act of drawing epitomises that characteristic space in Spinoza's thought where feelings and reason (or desire and materiality, or animate and inanimate) are allowed to collide and commingle feels like an uncannily perceptive one. More than this, though, it's a book that allows Berger's wide-ranging talents and interests - artistic, polemical, humanistic - to come together and prove that, at 84, his 'ways of seeing' are still vital, still visionary and perhaps even clearer than ever.
Nicholas Wroe recently interviewed John Berger for the Guardian's "A life in ..." series. Opening with an anecdote and sketch from Berger's newest book, Bento's Sketchbook, Wroe describes the drawing as "emblematic of Berger's career as combative art critic, radical writer and consistent challenger of institutional power. Here you have a snapshot not only of his relationship with art and the art world, but also of his relationship with society and authority in general."
Bento's Sketchbook is a characteristically sui generis work, combining an engagement with the thought of the 17th-century lens grinder, draughtsman and philosopher Baruch Spinoza with a study of drawing and a series of semi-autobiographical sketches, through which Berger attempts to explore the world around him and his place within it. We observe the bullishly fit and active octogenarian Berger climbing peach trees in his alpine village, talking to immigrants in Parisian suburbs and municipal swimming pools, attaching himself to a guided tour of the Wallace collection and reflecting on the physical and political similarities between the American folk radical Woody Guthrie and the Russian writer Andrei Platonov: "both lent their voices to those without a voice, and both confronted rural poverty".
"Spinoza has been in my head for a very long time," he explains. "Reading Marx as an 18-year-old, I remember him responding to a game in which he was asked to name his favourite philosopher. He said 'Spinoza'. It is in some ways a strange book - it is not directly a study of Spinoza or directly a book about drawing. I wanted to write about looking at the world, so it's more about helping people, or persuading people, to see what is around us; both the marvellous and the terrible. It's no coincidence that Spinoza worked in the then new science of optics."
Max Saunders, reviewing for the the Times Literary Supplement, remarks "these reissues are a welcome reminder of the seriousness and versatility of Berger's contribution to British post-war fiction."
Tariq Ali recounts a cheering encounter in a New York hotel:
A few months ago, tired after an event, I returned to my hotel, desperate for a sandwich and a glass of wine. I was served in the small bar, dominated by a small group listening to music and extremely noisy. Waiting for my food I took out a book I had first read decades ago and which had just been re-issued by Verso with a stunning intro by John Berger. I ignored the noise and dipped into the book, relishing both the ideas and the structure of the sentences exquisitely translated by Anna Bostock for Penguin all those years ago. Suddenly the noise decreased. The young people apologised for being so loud and switched off the music. One of them insisted on buying me a glass of wine. They had no idea who I was so I asked why? "A week ago my boyfriend read the book you're reading and thinks its awesome." We toasted the book. It was The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer. The episode cheered me enormously. A really good book will always find a home.