I’d promised myself that before I turned forty I would live as a hermit deep in the woods.
I wanted to settle an old score with time.
French author Sylvain Tesson felt an itch familiar to many: to escape the stress of modern city life, to retreat to the middle of nowhere and reclaim a semblance of silence and solitude. Of course, it’s not only about the surface difficulties of living in an urban center, but rather seeking the peace of mind that such an exit can provide.
He followed this impulse to its extreme, renting a cabin in the Siberian taiga on the shores of Lake Baikal for six months. He opens with lamenting fifteen kinds of ketchup in a supermarket as an example of why he’s fed up. (Personally, nothing delights me more than an overabundance of choices, especially in food, but we all have that drop that overflows the glass. For some it’s too much ketchup. I mention because even if you don’t always empathize with him or see his points, this still ends up being a remarkably enjoyable book.) He chooses eighteen bottles of one kind of ketchup, and ten times as much alcohol, and sets off from Irkutsk.
The forest draws together what the city disperses.
There are undercurrents of something deeper plaguing him, depression and a barely – if at all – concealed alcoholism. But he writes about his afflictions in a strangely relatable, almost universal way, with lines like “Getting up from a bed requires amazing energy. Especially when it’s to change a life.”
It’s not lost on him that Siberia was traditionally a place of prison camps and exile in Russian and Soviet history, and that whatever problems he faces there are minuscule in comparison to the sorrows this land has witnessed. He observes, “Innocent people were dumped for twenty-five years into this nightmare, whereas I will be living here by choice. Why should I complain?”
As part of this consideration of the region’s history, he allows that he’s an interloper without the deep emotional connections to either the country or Baikal. Observing distant neighbors, who comprise his few friends and contact during these months, he mentions noticing that one, often seen staring at the lake deep in thought, had lost a son who drowned there. “Sometimes one contemplates a landscape while thinking of the people who once loved it; the atmosphere is steeped in remembrance of the dead.”
Tesson had visited Baikal years previously, and sensed something there that he needed, something that I think certain restless types eventually sense after trying to solve problems through travel: “All I had to do was ask of immobility what travel no longer brought me: peace.” So he went, reclusive and hermit-like, into the woods; reading, collecting his thoughts, journaling.
When I discovered old Walt’s Leaves of Grass, I had no idea that reading it would lead me to a cabin. It’s dangerous to open a book.
It’s structured through dated diary entries, not merely recording the day’s events. He discusses his reading, which ranges from literary classics to Chinese proverbs, and meditates on questions of time and its passing, or his life back in Paris that seems impossibly distant from this spot in the world.
Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come.
He focuses on the importance of keeping a record, especially in a place where monotony threatens to override memory: “The hours stream by, and each day vanishes into a triumph of nothingness. The private diary: a commando operation against the absurd.” He writes honestly, acknowledging things like boredom but putting a creative and amusing spin on it – “This day is a slightly leaky tap from which every hour slowly drips.”
Tesson also confronts his own shortcomings, referencing a failing relationship and the reasons, not always overtly given, for his retreat. “A coward who silently soaks himself in alcohol to avoid witnessing the spectacle of his times or encountering his own conscience pacing up and down along the lakeshore.”
I loved this more than I expected to, but I think there are caveats for other readers. Tesson can be a cranky, cynical companion, verging on alcoholism but who treats it in a joking, light way. What the truth of this is, I’m not sure, perhaps it’s exaggerated for storytelling. The reader needs a sense of humor about the same in order to enjoy this. And despite his melancholy, I found his meditations on such feelings to be more artful than upsetting.
Ghosts and regrets take advantage of the twilight to slip into my heart, launching their operations just when the light fails, at seven o’clock.
My biggest disappointment is that we almost made it without anything disturbing happening to animals, but in the final pages, an incident. It’s tough because of course he would feel the need to share this anecdote, happening as it does on his last day in the wilderness, and although I wish he hadn’t told it, it didn’t ruin the book entirely for me. Worth mentioning for others similarly bothered.
I’ve learned two or three things that many people know without having to hole up somewhere.
I loved the dry, sometimes self-deprecating humor, the introspection and powerful observation. Hermit off-the-radar stories can be obnoxiously navel-gazey, but this isn’t. Despite his sadness, it’s hopeful and delightful. I felt his frustrations of living in a big city and the urge to leave. He comes across as burnt out but with a good-humored attitude. His time in the forest served him well: he leaves refreshed, with valuable perspective, a sense of peace, and better understanding of himself. It’s hard not to feel something of that alongside him. 4.25/5
Some lovely lines:
“The forests have no memories. They are without transformation, without history, they say nothing, and no echo of human actions lingers beneath their foliage. The taiga spreads over the land for itself alone. It covers slopes, storms up to peaks without owing anyone anything. ”
“My cabin is far away and me, I know nothing’ – a Russian proverb born in the taiga.”
“You’re always late to your own life; time doesn’t hand out second chances.”
I contemplated the poem of the mountains and drank tea while the lake turned pink. I killed the longing for the future … I struggled through the snow and forgot the struggle on the mountaintops … I took a look at the other shore. I knew weeks of silent snow. I loved to be warm in my hut while the tempest raged. I greeted the return of the sun and the wild ducks … I left the cave of cities and lived for six months in the church of the taigas. It’s good to know that out there, in a forest in the world, there is a cabin where something is possible, something fairly close to the sheer happiness of being alive.
The Consolations of the Forest:
Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga
by Sylvain Tesson,
translated from French by Linda Coverdale
published 2013 by Penguin,
originally in French in 2011