:: Article

Joining & Opening

By Anna Aslanyan


Bento’s Sketchbook, John Berger, Verso 2011

John Berger has been justly called a novelist, a critic, an essayist, an artist, a dramatist, a radical; what he calls himself is, first and foremost, a storyteller. Bento’s Sketchbook attests to this claim with the same vigour as any of his works: the great man is as amazing at eighty-five as ever.

His latest opus is a tribute to the seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict (or Bento) de Spinoza, whose lost sketchbook Berger kept imagining until he finally decided – not to recreate it, of course, or produce his version of it, but rather channel his own imagination into something that could well be Bento’s, too. “As time goes by […] the two of us – Bento and I – become less distinct,” he confesses; indeed, quotes from Spinoza‘s Ethics serve as a perfect frame for Berger’s words and images making this a proper sketchbook, much-used, jotted in, thumbed, carried around – and, luckily, still in one piece. It is full of the author’s drawings, starting from the cover: you find yourself before a front door, which stands open for you, just like the door of Berger’s house does most of the time. This is what Simon McBurney says – to him an open door is the best symbol for his friend’s art. At the recent gathering at the British Library, the theatre director introduced John Berger as someone who was born in the same year as Fidel Castro, John Coltrane, Marylin Monroe and the Queen. He stressed that what Berger is mostly doing is joining things – a metier closely related to opening doors.

Open doors are, indeed, powerful in the imagery of Berger the storyteller. He talks about things hidden and revealed, making inspired observations about introverted and extroverted modes of storytelling, inspired by two dancing parties he has witnessed. When the writer Jay Griffiths started talking about his hatred of fences and walls by, Berger quipped: “Depends on a particular wall!” and warned everyone that, if he were to elaborate, “this would turn into a long political meeting.” He certainly has all the energy for that, both on and off the page. Subtle notes on “where and to what the practice of drawing can lead” in the book interchange with pieces on, say, the nature of today’s global tyranny: “… it’s faceless. There’s no Führer, no Stalin, no Cortés.” You would expect statements like, “Consumerism consumes all questioning” from a writer who, forty years ago, gave half of his Booker prize money to the lefter-than-thou Black Panthers; what is harder to believe is the way his voice still rises the moment he starts talking about “economic fascism” dominating the modern world. The same ardour is felt in an essay where the author watches, with his sharper-than-ever eye, scenes unfolding in a hard-discount supermarket, a “vast hangar whose obsession is Theft,” where “the prescribed target for cashiers is to scan thirty-five items per minute.”

Leafing through the sketchbook, it is hard to choose between Berger the draughtsman and Berger the writer – naturally, you are tempted to compare the texts and the drawings, even perceive the latter as illustrations to the former, but that would be too linear, so I’ll stick with what I know. One of the most impressive pieces of writing here is an account of a visit to Wallace Collection, deeply sensual, at times erotic, where a painting by Willem Drost allows the spectator to conclude that desire “renders the one who is so desired fearless. […] To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody can reach in this life to feeling immortal.” Similar thoughts have appeared in other Berger’s works, but I can’t remember their being articulated with such precision.

One thing mentioned by many at the launch is Berger’s capacity for sharing, most recently demonstrated by his gift to the British Library – he donated his archive to it. Asked about gifts, he simply exclaimed, “They are wonderful!” – and immediately got one, an old-looking key found by Jay Griffiths in a brick-a-brack shop and connected in her mind with Berger’s love of open doors. Gifts crop up in Sketchbook, too; from a hand-knitted baby’s jacket someone left on the author’s kitchen table when he was out (again, “the front door was not locked”) to a Sho Japanese brush he gave to a chance acquaintance, leaving it on a bench in a swimming pool and getting, in the same manner, a drawing made by this brush. On that occasion, the painter doesn’t wave back to him: “No gift can be accompanied by a claim.”

I don’t know if Berger waved back to the staff on his way out of the British Library that evening – the queue for signing, when I left, was still long enough to keep him there ’til late. His donation to the library seems to be just one layer of a wider artistic generosity; in the course of the discussion, he was moved several times to gasp “Beautiful!” in response to a particular line by his interlocutors, and it didn’t sound like mere politeness. Perhaps it was this enthusiasm that provoked a question from the audience about his optimism in the face of all the tragedies he has witnessed, having lived throughout most of the 20th century. “There are both marvellous and monstrous things happening in our age,” he began before explaining that optimism and hope are not the same – the former is not something you hold for the future, it’s about now – and ended up recalling Spinoza’s doctrine of the eternity of the mind, which is also related to the present moment.

There are no limits to Berger’s imaginative discourse when he starts talking about drawing: he compares it to riding a motorcycle (“Coming for a ride, Bento?”), to “hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells.” To him, “drawing is a form of probing,” but also of joining things – points, words, ideas – together. Without this skill of connecting the seemingly unconnectable one cannot afford to talk about quetch plums on one page and Spinoza on the next. Berger does it with natural ease, the true master of joining and opening.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 30th, 2011.