Sylvain Tesson Treks Rural France

On the Wandering Paths, by Sylvain Tesson, translated from French by Drew S. Burk
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Every long march has its moments of salvation. We set out on the road, we make our way forward by seeking out perspectives in the bramble and avoiding the village. We seek out shelter for the evening. We reimburse ourselves in the form of dreams composed from the sadness of the day.

French author Sylvain Tesson, known for his travelogues with a twist, often involving very long walks, obscure motorcycle journeys, or Siberian isolation, suffered a climbing accident that landed him hospitalized in a coma. As he slowly recovered, he promised himself he’d make the most of having the ability to walk again, deciding to walk the ancient trails through the mountainous region of southern France once he could. Being used to much farther flung locales, as he puts it: “I found it rather inconsiderate to have traveled the world over without exploring the treasures in one’s own backyard.”

On the Wandering Paths is the freshly translated account of the walk that ensued, through the heart of France’s interior “hyperrural” areas on the trails that peasants once navigated through the countryside. It weaves in his feelings around recently losing his mother, as well as meditations on technology, consumer culture, our overly connected world, and any other philosophical and literary thoughts that pop into his head.

If you’ve read Tesson before, you may have an idea what to expect: bold, a little grouchy, lyrical, sentimental — always something of the Russian concept of toska in his work as well.

This was not my favorite of his (I know I said that about his last to be translated into English too) but it did shift and perk up in my mind towards the end. And I think I eventually understood why he wrote what he did and the way he did, considering his mindset and the “bad chapter” of life he was in when he undertook this journey. It was probably more cathartic for him than other readers, but I liked feeling that I understood him and what this journey to meant to him – he really shows his transformation and why he needed transforming in the first place. And I got a couple of especially delightful Tesson lines out of it. Most towards the end; I promise it’s really worth sticking with.

One must still respond to the invitations made by maps, believe in their promises, cross entire countries, and stand there for a couple of minutes so as to close out a bad chapter in one’s life.

And all the pain eventually washes away, and one is set back upright on one’s two feet.

But fair warning going in, although it has some intriguing descriptions of road-less-traveled countryside and forest and a few Characters with a capital C he encounters to give it a travelogue feel, it’s much more of an internal journey than an external one, and I think any description of it tends to favor the latter so that might feel disappointing depending on expectation. It’s also probably best to have some familiarity with Tesson’s work previously — not to understand this one, but just to get who he is and where he’s coming from.

With The Art of Patience, I mentioned being annoyed at some esoteric and antiquated vocabulary that I thought the translator had chosen where simpler or at least more common words would do, but it was the same thing here with a different translator so I see that’s a Tesson problem. I don’t remember that from Consolations of the Forest or Berezina, the two of his I’ve loved, but it does take you out of the reading.

Still, I’m so happy when anything of his gets translated, and if you also enjoy him you’ll find something to appreciate here too. I hope they do L’Axe du loup next! (They won’t, it’s a more than a decade old and a longer book so I doubt it’s high on any publisher’s translation list but I want to read that one so bad!)

While staying at a bed-and-breakfast in Azay-sur-Indre, I discovered a book about the history of the penal colony in Cayenne, French Guiana. I also came across the antiphony of those condemned there: “The past betrayed me, the present torments me, the future horrifies me.” Walking in the woods swept away these fears. I perhaps could also compose a ritual chant: “The past obliges me, the present heals me, I don’t give a damn about the future.”

published July 19, 2022 by University of Minnesota Press

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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8 thoughts on “Sylvain Tesson Treks Rural France

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    1. It was very different from Berezina, I thought, but I still just enjoy spending time with him on whatever his journey may be! If you already like his writing you might like it, just good to know it’s quite different 🙂

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  1. That’s useful to have links to the ones you think are good to start with or preferable as I’d have been drawn to the French setting here (I’m having to keep myself away from France at the moment while I learn Spanish / we explore finding a little flat to have in Spain to help my husband’s terrible SAD, as French gets horribly into my Spanish!).

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    1. Glad I could point you to those! And how wonderful that you’re looking for a place there (although I’m sorry his suffering with SAD has to be the reason!) I hope you can find a good one! A friend in Madrid mentioned to me how common it is for apartment buildings there to have swimming pools and I was so excited/jealous! 🙂

      The French setting in this one is nice when it crops up, but it really does just have much more of an “internal journey” focus, so you have to be in the mood for that type. And it ends up being pretty satisfying if you are 🙂

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  2. So glad you got to this one.
    I actually enjoyed a lot too, I don’t think there’s a book by Tesson I didn’t like so far.
    “esoteric and antiquated vocabulary”? I have been reading them in French, and this doesn’t seem to describe his style for me. I wonder about what the translator (unknown to me) did.
    And yes, L’Axe du loup is very good too!

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    1. This is probably my least favorite of his, but even a lesser book of his is still pretty good!

      The antiquated vocab thing came up in the last book of his I read – nearly every unknown word I had to look up was marked as antiquated usage, and then again with this one (I can’t remember specific examples – none were useful or interesting enough to make note of!) This book had a different translator than that one, so it’s definitely something about his usage and not the TR. I assume he’s just using more esoteric words in French so that they have to really dig to try to faithfully represent the meaning in English.

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  3. Lovely quotes from this one! Do you keep a collection of quotes from books you’ve read? I’ve recently been listening to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast and collecting quotes, then seeing how they change your understanding of a book when reviewed together is one of the techniques they use for deeper reading, so I’ve been considering starting a collection of quotes myself 🙂

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    1. I record quotes but like with all my reading-related activity it’s a total disorganized mess 😂 I highlight or mark them in my physical books and ebooks, copy them in the Notes app for library books, have some older ones saved in email drafts, and flipping through some old journals I saw I used to scribble quotes from books I was reading throughout those too 😭 Many I know I’ve only saved through reviews written here. I need a better system of organization for them because I love revisiting them, actually! Did the podcast give any suggestions? I’ll have to check it out although you know my feelings of avoidance for bookish podcasts!

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