In 2010, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson spent six months living in a cabin in the Middle Taiga on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Consolations of the Forest is a compilation of his diary entries over that time, recording his daily life and material existence . It is also a vivid record of the psycho-emotional landscape of a man during a time spent almost completely alone, with only two dogs, a rather rigorous reading list and a scattering of unannounced visits from far flung neighbours, hunters and blow-ins for company.
“Let’s get the statistics out of the way,” Tesson writes at the book’s opening.
“Baikal: 435 miles long, 50 miles wide, almost a mile deep. 25 million years old. The winter ice is over three and a half feet thick. Beaming its love down upon the white surface, the sun doesn’t give a damn about such things. Filtered by clouds, patches of sunshine slide in a gleaming herd across the snow, brightening its cadaverous cheeks.”
At its heart, the book is a radical response to a craving for freedom. A quintessentially modern, masculine and middleclass condition in its articulation, it’s nonetheless primal, universal and even archetypal in its origins. As the title suggests, Tesson draws on classical, contemporary, Eastern and Western philosophy to make meaning of his challenges, along with some of his own homespun personal epiphanies. In connecting place, and experience with wider concepts of the human condition, Tesson picks up where the great 19th century travel writers left off, offering an illuminating portrait of Russia, and more generally, the condition of modern life.
Solitude, unsurprisingly, takes up a large portion of these meditations. “Nature’s solitude meets mine,” he writes. “And our two solitudes confirm their existence”, he continues, before weaving in an observation by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that the joy of human companionship is linked to the need to convince oneself that the world does exist. It’s a preoccupation that deals with the kernel of the human condition, the confounding dichotomy both of needing companionship, and craving solitude. This tension is at the core of a lot of his suffering; in a one of his lighter moments, he describes the irony thusly: “Nothing is as good as solitude. The only thing I need to make me perfectly happy is someone to whom I could explain this”.
There is some implicit self-indulgence to this process, of course. He refers smugly to “the hermit” – read: himself – as if it were a bona fide archetype, (“The hermit, without access to the news of the day, owes it to himself to be up-to-date on the doings of ancient Rome”, “A hermit does not threaten human society, or which he is at most the living critique”, and “The hermit does not oppose but espouses a way of life”) and the near-constant self aggrandising can get a little grating.
No matter. If he is the protagonist of his own story, then the Middle Taiga is the beautiful and deeply admired supporting cast. The landscape is evoked in reverent tones, and the book works as a beautiful, if at times overwritten, work of natural history, with its clear and visceral descriptions of the changing seasons and landscapes.
As narrative arc goes, we are left – as he is – with the gradual unravelling of the seasons to mark time. From February blizzards, snow, and a frozen waterfall, the book journeys through to the gradual unfurling of spring – butterflies, ducks and temperate skies. In the end, we are as sorry to leave as he is.
Consolations of the Forest
By Sylvain Tesson (Translated by Linda Coverdale)
By Jenni Kauppi