Recently, I have been reading John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin? A little treasure box of his own drawings, ruminations and gentle stories about his neighbours and encounters, this wise, humane book was inspired by the 17th-century philosopher, Benedict (Bento) Spinoza, who apparently always carried a sketchbook with him. Although Spinoza’s sketchbook has never been found, John Berger’s tribute, with its many revelations on the arts of drawing and storytelling, human perception and interconnection, is a wonderful artifact in itself. Throughout the text, he weaves in resonant quotations from Spinoza’s Ethics.
One story opens with Berger’s drawing of a bicycle that is 60 years old. He then tells us about its owner, his Parisian neighbour, Luca, who still rides the bike to visit friends and go to play petanque. At age nine, Luca was selling newspapers outside the metro and then digging for gypsum to help his family survive. When he got work in a car mechanic’s shop at age 14, he gave his entire first wages to his amazed mother, who the next week, went out and bought him the bicycle John Berger has drawn. Luca was taken on as a riveter at an airplane factory at Orly, and when Air France was created, he applied for work there, attending its technical school and ultimately becoming a very well-paid engineer controller. He was able to buy the house he now lives in, and continue helping his parents.
When Luca retired at age 60, his plan was to travel widely with his beloved wife Odille. But Odille had begun her own peculiar wandering, unable to find her way home because she was in the grip of Alzheimer’s. Luca looked after her until her needs far outstripped his capabilities. He decided to dedicate all his life’s savings to her care, and found a good residence with a room that made her smile. At the end of Luca’s story, John Berger appends this quote from Spinoza: “The more an image is joined with many other things, the more it flourishes.” In just this way, he has used the image of the bicycle to take us, point by point, through the life of a hard-working, generous-spirited man who has embraced his destiny with fortitude and grace.
This ideal of the flourishing image, “joined with many other things,” is also the animating principle behind John Berger’s reflective, compassionate novels, like To the Wedding, Here Is Where We Meet, and Pig Earth, his consummate short story collection about peasant life in rural France. I was saddened to learn of his death in January, age 90, but am immensely grateful for the body of work he has left us, full of his rare insights and his unfailing passion for social justice and desire to create a better world for the dispossessed.