Russian retreat

Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga, by Sylvain Tesson, translated by Linda Coverdale, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99, 256 pages

Six months alone in a Siberian log cabin measuring three metres by three metres, a six-day walk from the nearest hamlet along the shores of Lake Baikal: hell for many, sheer paradise to others.

Sylvain Tesson, a French adventurer described by L’Express as his country’s “most brilliant travel writer”, is just the man for the job. More accustomed to movement (in the 1990s he completed a 5,000km crossing of the Himalayas on foot and a world tour by bicycle), Tesson embarks here on the more testing, inner journey of staying still. Consolations of the Forest, the product of this retreat, was a bestseller in France and won the 2011 Prix Médicis for non-fiction.

Battening down the hatches against loneliness, Tesson draws his company from a crate of books. Here are Jünger, Thoreau, Whitman, Nietzsche, DH Lawrence, Schopenhauer, De Sade, Casanova, Rousseau, collected Stoics, Shakespeare, assorted wilderness tomes and, with a masochistic flourish, Kierkegaard.

They give him inspiration throughout his extended stay in a preternaturally beautiful environment of forest, lake and mountain. Fringed with birch, larch, ash, pine and cedar, Baikal is a wind-polished ice rink for four months of the year. He skates on it in winter, kayaks across it in spring and stares down on it in wonder during high-spirited ascents of snow-encrusted summits.

Poetic frissons of awe at his surroundings crowd his diary entries, lubricated with heroic quantities of vodka, drunk alone or shared with passing fishermen and alcoholic meteoro­logists who, like Tesson, are willingly stranded in this vast, liberating prison. When he is not hiking, cutting wood, smoking Havanas or fishing, he is seated at his cabin window, a frame through which to observe time and space.

Readers expecting a soupçon of Gallic pretension will not be disappointed. Tesson rejects photography outright, saying: “I’m incapable of taking the slightest photo, which would be a double offence: a sin of inattention and an insult to the moment.” A rare descent from the literary heights to read a murder mystery only confirms him in his preferences. “I closed the book feeling as if I’d just eaten at McDonald’s: nauseated and slightly ashamed.”

Yet technological and intellectual snobbery aside, Tesson maintains the reader’s sympathy and affection because he is quite conscious of the sometimes ridiculous figure he cuts out here – and because of the quality of his writing, which is well served by Linda Coverdale’s translation. One day he spends an hour watching the progress of sunbeams across the tablecloth and admires the dancing motes. “So now I’m rhapsodising about dust,” he confesses. “March is going to be a long month.”

There are insightful meditations on the renunciation of society, its causes and consequences. Tesson is deadly serious, endlessly curious, intellectually playful, occasionally pious, but his vodka-doused reveries are happily laced with irreverence. He compares Russian woodsmen with 4th-century Desert Fathers and finds the ascetics wanting. “In short,” he writes, “if you want to have a good time around a bottle of vodka, you’re better off running into a hermit in the woods rather than a holy fool perched on his pillar.”

Tesson pays a price for this exercise in hermitage. One day his lover announces, via a satellite phone text message, that she is leaving him. Isolation is piled on top of isolation. There is an emotional collapse, honestly laid bare, leavened only by the solace of his two loyal puppies, given as bear deterrents by a distant neighbour.

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke cautioned a young writer in 1903; “blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches ...”

No one could accuse Tesson either of leading an impoverished existence or of suffering from an inability to convey life’s joys and wonders. Rich in poetry, charged with intensity, Consolations is magnificent, pretentious, thoroughly French, a hermit’s vodka-tossed paean to retreat and solitude.

Justin Marozzi is author of ‘The Man who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’ (John Murray)

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