TWO years ago, on Good Friday, John Berger went to the National Gallery to sketch Antonello da Messina's painting of Christ Crucified. He placed his bag on a chair vacated by a security guard while he drew, until the man returned and demanded that he move it. He then put his bag at his feet, but that wasn't allowed either. An altercation followed, after which Berger - celebrated art critic, Booker prize-winning novelist, octogenarian - was unceremoniously thrown out.
His eyes twinkle at the memory, half amused, half still smarting at the pain. "Well, I mean, it was infuriating, because I wanted to draw. But …" He shrugs a very Gallic shrug, as if to say: after a lifetime of non-conforming, what can you expect?
When Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, he caused a scandal by donating half his prize money to the Black Panthers, and using the other half to fund the writing of A Seventh Man, a book about migrant workers. In the same year he made Ways of Seeing, a television series and book intended as a Marxist riposte to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which became a seminal text in art criticism for the next 40 years.
In the world of the Left-leaning intellectual, he is spoken of in reverential tones. Susan Sontag described him as "peerless in contemporary English letters". He has continued to write widely and well across a wide range of genres. His 2008 novel, From A to X, was longlisted for the Booker. The following year he received the 2009 Golden PEN Award for lifetime services to literature.
Berger, who has lived in a village in the Haute Savoie in the French Alps for more than 35 years, speaks English with a hint of a French accent. His mannerisms are French: the sigh, the shrug. With tanned skin and bright blue eyes, he looks a decade younger than his 84 years. His lined face and wild Samuel Beckett hair demand almost that he be drawn rather than interviewed. I suspect he might prefer that. We meet in London, where he is staying for a week in the house of a friend from art school (Chelsea School of Art in the 1940s). With delight, he points out her paintings as we climb the stairs. On the top floor he introduces me to his quietly spoken wife Beverly, and both scurry around fetching bread, pungent French cheese ("from home") and a slice of Russian pie. Any aversion to being interviewed is clearly less important than the grace of hospitality.
We're here to talk about his new book, Bento's Sketchbook, a mix of memoir, philosophy, essays and drawings.It began when Berger read that the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (known as Bento) kept a sketchbook which was never found. Berger imagines that sketchbook through his own drawings, interweaving it with his own elegant text and sections of Spinoza. It is a book which has been drawn almost as much as it has been written.
Spinoza has been a favourite of Berger's since he was a teenager, "when I read not always understanding, perhaps very seldom". In the writing of the book, he regarded the philosopher more as a "companion" than a "master". Both Berger and Spinoza share a fascination with the nature of looking: Bento worked as a lens grinder in the new science of optics; both men liked to draw. "Right from the beginning, I didn't think it was a book about Spinoza. I thought of it as a book about the world we are living in, and which so often we refuse to look at, for the good and the bad. The project was to try to see the world today in which we are living."
Too many of today's problems result from not seeing clearly, Berger says. He talks about the "new financial order" which he describes as "economic fascism … where the virtual is more important than the real and the productive. It produces a growing opposition between the rich and the poor, and in all the thinking and the reasoning that goes on, the sense of what exists at ground level is absent."
He thumps the table quietly with both hands, as if to demonstrate its concreteness.
"The situation with Dominique Strauss-Khan (the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, charged with sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a high-class New York hotel], whatever else it's about, it's about not seeing, it's losing that connection with the real. I don't know exactly what happened, but what's absolutely clear is that it was incredibly stupid of him. I mean - ach!" He almost spits with contempt. "It's as though that kind of suite which costs 3,000 for 24 hours that he hired, that blinds the occupant to any real sense of what is on the ground."
This last was an unusually verbose outburst. A question to Berger is typically greeted with a long pause which lengthens into an uncomfortable silence. He sighs and looks away. "Don't be surprised by his long pauses," Beverly mediates. "This is always the case. It's the thinking, and then trying to be distilled and precise."
And here is another commonality with Spinoza. The philosopher demanded from language a near-mathematical precision which has made him, in most versions, quite difficult to read. Berger, thankfully, does not go so far. But his sentences, whether written or spoken, are beautifully crafted. Lack of clarity frustrates him. "This is very important in a situation like we are in today, where so much of public discourse, whether it is politics or promotion, it doesn't only lack precision, it is made to be imprecise and to confuse and to hypnotise.Stylistically, in the language of (Spinoza's] thinking, he is extremely opposed to the language of promotion or greed, and political confusion that exists on both Left and Right today."
Berger was born in 1926. He was sent to boarding school, which he hated, and escaped at the age of 16 to attend the Central School of Art. After further studies at Chelsea, he taught drawing and worked as an artist, but in the 1950s he shifted into writing, producing art criticism for the New Statesman, and the Tribune, under the editorship of George Orwell.
Bento's Sketchbook is a celebration of eclectic interests from the gathering of ripe plums, to Velazquez's paintings of fools, from drawing to motorcycles. Some of the most beautiful writing in the book is about the ordinary lives that touch Berger's in the Haute Savoie: a neighbour whose wife is hospitalised with dementia; a Cambodian artist he meets at the local swimming pool. He is a man of strong opinions who seems to prefer to listen rather than talk, for whom the most crucial of virtues might turn out to be kindness.
"Spinoza is very good about the absurdity of greed. He's very good about the respect for the other. He's very good about rejecting the dualism between the material and the spiritual, the Cartesian division, therefore he's very good about what is sacred. In my thinking, since I was really young, I've been philosophically a materialist, considerably influenced by dialectical materialism and Marx. But at the same time, from an equally early age, I've had a sense of the sacred. Spinoza shows there is no contradiction in that."
What is the sacred to him? "Difficult," Beverly mutters, loud enough for me to hear. Another long pause. Then Berger says: "It derives from the relation that exists between the particular and the infinite. Spinoza says that better than I do. In the book when I quote some of those thoughts of his, there's often a drawing - it might be of a fruit, or a cat asleep. Where an image comes in relation to a text, it's very deliberate, and hopefully a way of welcoming the reader, and encouraging the reader to ask themselves questions."
Berger is a maker of connections, between politics and art, ideas and people. At an event later on the same day at the British Library, Simon McBurney of Thtre de Complicit introduced him simply by saying: "John is somebody who joins things together." Drawing, according to Berger, is "a way of coming upon the connection between things, just like metaphor in poetry reconnects what has become separated."
In the next silence, Beverly looks at her watch. It is a movement of impeccable politeness, but a hint nonetheless. I ask Berger about hope. The Marxist ideology has failed, the world languishes in the consequences of a version of capitalism gone mad, yet he seems to be on the side of hope?
"Of course I am!" he says, blue eyes shining.In Bento's Sketchbook, he writes: "Hope is a contraband passed from hand to hand, and story to story."
"I'd rather reject the terms optimistic and pessimistic. They suggest a calculation of how things are going to evolve, and if it's going to evolve in the way you want, you're optimistic. That has very little to do with despair and hope. Hope is not a form of guarantee, it's a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.
"Protest and anger practically always derives from hope, and the shouting out against injustice is always in the hope of those injustices being somewhat corrected and a little more justice established. One of the reasons, it seems to me, why everybody was so impressed by the Arab Spring is because they suddenly saw there this capacity of anger and protest and collectivity which had been so lacking for decades.
"When you look at the expressions of those people, whose ages were very different but whose energy was somewhat united, that energy comes from hope."
• Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger is published by Verse Books, priced 14.99