Bento's Sketchbook

The word "sketch" entered the English language from the Dutch towards the end of the 17th century. From the beginning, it had two meanings: a brief description in words, or the outline of a picture. Berger's book employs both meanings of the word - it is nothing but a series of sketches in words and images.

Such a description would suggest a "slight", even an occasional, book. However, this brief collection is electric with thought and energy as Berger composes what might be called a summum, an attempt to weave together his thoughts from what is now decades of unceasing reflection.

Simply put, Bento's Sketchbook is an extended meditation on the act of drawing and on what is involved in making a likeness. In this respect, Berger could be seen as returning to his original vocation as an art critic. These sketches rarely travel into galleries, however, although there are luminous sorties into both the National Gallery in London and the Prado Museum in Madrid. Most of the reflections come from either suburban Paris or the high mountains of Savoy, and Berger is concerned with the most quotidian of encounters: at the municipal library, for example, and a death and a marriage in the Alps.

There is another thread in this book: a meditation on the thought of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza gloried, if that is the word, in three versions of his first name. He was named Baruch, or "blessed", by his Orthodox Jewish family, but when, at the age of 24, he was expelled from the Amsterdam Synagogue he took the name Benedict, the Christian equivalent of the Jewish name he had abandoned. He also used a Portuguese version of his name, Bento, and it is this designation that Berger has chosen for his title.

Spinoza has some claim to being the most difficult of all the great philosophers. His finest work, the Ethics, first published in 1677, was written in Latin and takes the form of an axio­matic deduction of the nature of the world. René Descartes's philosophy, which provided Spinoza with his starting point, was bedevilled by there being no necessary connection between the world of thought and that of "extension" (bodies in space). The upshot was a kind of fundamental scepticism about the existence of the external world. Spinoza resolved this problem by making thought and extension the attributes of a single substance, "God or Nature" (Deus sive Natura). It followed from this that any deduction in the world of thought automatically coincides with an event in the world of extension.

Berger, however, is interested not in expounding a broad philosophy, but in trying to follow the train of Spinoza's thought into art and everyday life. On the one hand, this gives us the most wonderful commonplace book, as Berger copies out passage after luminous passage from Spinoza's exceptionally dense writings. Time and again, he produces insights that are not dependent on an understanding of Spinoza - either his pantheistic system or his thoughts about the relationship between freedom and necessity. What Berger's quotations provide is, at bottom, a vision of freedom within the ineluctable necessities of a comprehensible universe.

His method is not the more geometrico or "geometrical manner" of axioms and theorems favoured by Spinoza; rather, it consists in the ­effort to capture the world in a sketch. The work's conceit is that Berger is reproducing the sketchbooks that we know Spinoza filled, but which have long since disappeared. This does not mean that Berger draws in the manner of 17th-century Amsterdam. What he is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza's attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world. A huge supermarket on the outskirts of Paris reveals a world in which everything is stolen from the poor. A visit to a swimming pool brings home the distant tragedies of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Perhaps the author's greatest gift to readers is his implacable reckoning with the situation in which the world finds itself. There are few consolations on a planet where it becomes ever more difficult to communicate messages of hope about our future. As Berger writes to Arundhati Roy, "Words . . . are like stones put into the pockets of roped prisoners before they are thrown into the river."

And yet, somehow, despite his determination to look the meanness of our times in the face, he manages simultaneously to affirm the possibility of a brighter future. Here Spinoza's belief in an ordered universe that is susceptible to being understood functions as a continuous promise and ambition.

Berger's words and images, rendered serene by age and habit, provide an exhilarating and unflinching account of global devastation and ordinary life. They also offer us an uncommon optimism. l

Colin MacCabe is associate director of the London Consortium, the postgraduate studies programme

Bento's Sketchbook
John Berger
Verso, 176pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide