Friday, May 8, 2020

Sylvain Tesson's six months in a cabin on shore of Lake Baikal - I take eighteen bottles: three per month.

Since I was promised a book about solitude in Bosco’s Malicroix and did not really get one, I thought I would mention a real one that I read last year, Sylvain Tesson’s In the Forests of Siberia (Dans les forêts de Sibérie, 2011).  The book exists in English under the embarrassing title The Consolations of the Forest, I assume to attract some of the readers of that recent bestseller about trees.  The German one?  Am I imagining that?  “Bestseller about trees” does not sound plausible.

Tesson is France’s most prestigious travel writer, and France has an audience that takes its travel writers, living and dead, seriously.  He has developed a special interest in Russia, visiting the country in many books.  By chance, earlier today Kaggsy wrote about another of his Russian books, Berezina (2015), in which he recreates Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow on a Soviet motorcycle.

In Forests, Tesson sits still for a while.  He spends February through July of 2010 in a cabin (the one to the upper left) on the shore of Lake Baikal, where he can be alone with himself, watch the weather and the lake, climb the nearby mountains, read, and drink.  There is a human being in another cabin a day’s walk to the north, and a couple of people a day’s walk to the south, and that’s it, at least until the lake thaws.  I was surprised how many visitors Tesson starts to get when the lake thaws. By then, though, the neighbors to the south have given Tesson a pair of dogs, and the nature of Tesson’s “solitude” has completely changed.  Forests kinda turns into a dog book.

Still, there is as much solitude, or more, than he wants.  Why is Tesson performing the experiment, other than to write this book?  In the first paragraph, he is shopping in Irkutsk.  “I had already filled six carts with pasta and Tabasco.”  He has trouble with the ketchup, because there are fifteen varieties.  “I choose ‘super hot tapas’ Heinz.  I take eighteen bottles: three per month” (p. 21).  This, he thinks, “fifteen kinds of ketchup,” is reason enough “to leave this world” for a while.

He says he told people in France that he was isolating himself “because I had fallen behind in my reading” (32), and I am including the contents of Tesson’s box of books, to which he gives a lot of thought.  “List of Ideal Reading Composed in Paris with Great Care in Anticipation of a Sojourn of Six Months in the Siberian Forest,” is the label up above.

When one is wary of the poverty of his internal life, it is necessary to carry some good books: one can always fill one’s own void.  The error would be to choose exclusively from difficult books, imagining that life in the woods maintains in you a very high spiritual temperature.  Time passes slowly when one has nothing but Hegel for a snowy afternoon.  (32, all translations are obviously mine)

Some philosophy, some crime novels, of course Robinson Crusoe, of course Walden, lots of American nature writing, remembering that the French for some reason do not produce their own nature writing, although Tesson’s book counts.  I am just assuming that people wandering by Wuthering Expectations are more curious about what Tesson reads than what he sees when the seasons change, although that is awfully interesting, or heaven forbid what he discovers about himself, which will not surprise many readers.  But as usual I prefer a writer’s irony to his sincerity.  Anyways, lists of books, everyone like those.


  1. I've never read him, mostly out of personal prejudice, I'm afraid. I can't help seeing his travels as a pale imitation of American nature writing. Why read an ersatz when you can read the real stuff?

    That said, he's quite famous in France and he has a strong readership.

    France has no tradition of nature writing, mostly because it doesn't have the same history as the USA. We should leave it at that and accept it.

    Then you can always wander in Provence with Giono and Pagnol, in the Alps with Rousseau, in Normandy with Maupassant and Flaubert or in the Cévennes with Stevenson. I imagine there are pages in Brittany in Chateaubriand's memoirs and about the center of France in books by George Sand.

    Anyway, you guessed well, I enjoyed discovering his list of books.

    He has at least one redeeming quality, he took Promise at Dawn with him. I'm surprised he didn't pick The Roots of Heaven or A European Education instead. There's more nature involved in those two.

  2. I would put Tesson in the category of "adventure writer," more like Paul Theroux or Nicolas Bouvier. He is more interested in the people he meets than nature. This book, since he is sitting still, makes him an accidental nature writer. He does what he can, but the best parts of the book, as odd as it sounds in this context, are about people - those neighbors to the north and south, and the occasional visitors. And the dogs.

    In the U.S., we used to have a number of prestigious adventure writers, with Theroux at the top of the heap, but not so much now. My impression is that Great Britain still has lots of authors writing nature books, travel books, or both, Robert Macfarlane most prominently.

    A few of the books on Tesson's list are adventure books where the author is moving a lot, and I will bet that is why he picked that Gary. Vicarious movement.

  3. Thanks for the mention! I found him entertaining, but he's more a travel writer than a nature writer I think, and there *is* often a difference. List of books are interesting, though there aren't a lot of women on there I notice...

  4. Are we all agreeing, or disagreeing? Now I am confused. Tesson is a travel writer, interested in adventure, people, and history, but this particular book has some nature writing in it, too.

    "there aren't a lot of women," very funny. Tesson is French.

  5. I rolled my eyes at the inclusion of Sade, but as you say, Tesson is French.

  6. He should have ended with a list of the books that he could never quite bring himself to read, even in these circumstances. "Why did I bring that?" Maybe he got everything read.

    He mentions reading Casanova, but I don't remember if he mentions Sade. He spends one gloomy, stormy day doing nothing but reading mysteries (and, I assume, drinking), and he writes how he feels sick, afterwards, disgusted with himself.