I can’t believe that I have failed to blog about this book before, but I’ve checked both this blog and my old blog and somehow this little gem has slipped through the cracks. Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson is one of my comfort reads, a book that is easy to return to and always delivers a sense of quietude and calm in my otherwise noisy life. In the run up to Christmas things always begin to feel fairly fraught: work is busier, my daughter’s birthday is looming as is the spectre of Christmas shopping, and somehow I always seem to have to spend a week away from home in some place I don’t exactly want to go (Dubai, this time) which sets me back in so many ways it takes another week just to recover. It is a time during which I would love to do nothing more than retreat, hide away in the woods somewhere, but as I can’t do that (and it would only frazzle me more) I can instead read about someone that did, and the vicarious experience is soothing enough. Sylvain Tesson’s lovely book offers me that wonderful opportunity.
Tesson promised himself that before he reached the age of 40 he would spend some time holed up like a hermit in a cabin in the woods in the Russian taiga, and Consolations is the story of his time spent doing exactly that. The book is written in diary form, covering the period February through to July. Tesson took with him a supply of food, cigars, vodka and books and intended to spend the time uncovering the quality of his inner life, a matter which he had been concerned about and which was shielded by the hustle and bustle of Parisian life, his desire for travel and motion and the many ways in which he distracted and obfuscated himself. During his time in the forest he contemplates the slower, more self-reliant life, the value of fishing, of watching the light move around the cabin, of chopping wood and being intimately part of your surroundings. He reads books and thinks about what the books mean, he spends vast numbers of hours alone spending time exactly as he chooses. He doesn’t manage to be entirely alone. There are necessary bureaucracies to attend to, visits from other cabin dwellers, visits he makes himself, in the summer he acquires two dogs. But his time is spent predominantly alone, enjoying (or enduring, depending on the day) the slower, less distracted life.
Not a great deal happens in the forest. In the early days it is still winter, there is little in the way of creaturely life and instead Tesson has only the landscape, the unique environment, to reflect upon. Yet spared the usual distractions this proves a surprisingly rich and varied canvas to observe and reflect upon, like here when he describes spending a day on the iced-over lake:
“A day on the lake fascinated by the designs in the icy mantle. Into the frozen body the cracks and fissures weave electric layers whose current spreads with hectic abandon: the lines retract, join up, veer away. The ice has absorbed the energy of the shocks by distributing it along sheaves of ‘wiring’. Staggering blows rend the silence and are borne along as the echo of an explosion dozens of miles away. The noise vents itself through these networks of veining. As the sun’s rays are refracted in the cross-connections, the skein begins to glow. Light irradiates the veins of turquoise, infusing them with trails of gold. The ice convulses. It is alive, and I love it. The pearly coils trace knots resembling the neuronal tissues or photos of stardust clouds. The map of this meshing would be psychedelic. Without drugs or wine, my brain perceives hallucinatory sequences as the world offers glimpses of an unknown writing. The patterns stream by as if born in an opium dream, for nature refuses us even the consolation of projecting our own brand-new images on this psychedelic screen.”
Aside from reflecting on the beauty and grandeur of the landscape, Tesson also spends time reflecting on his inner life, on the nature of hermitage and the benefits of this kind of life. It is evident that Tesson loved his time in the forest, that he adapted easily to life without the trappings of modern civilisation (though he did have solar panels, electricity and a satellite phone). His writing is clever, funny and at some times ruthlessly cutting, like here where he describes his reflection on the nature of retreat and what it means both for the individual and how it reflects on society:
“A retreat is a revolt. Entering one’s cabin means vanishing from surveillance screens. The hermit erases himself. He sends no more numeric traces, no telephonic signals, no banking data. He divests himself of all identity. He effects a kind of reverse backing, and leaves the Great Game. No need, moreover, to head for the woods. Revolutionary asceticism can adapt to an urban milieu. The consumer society offers the choice to conform to it, and with a little discipline…Surrounded by abundance, some are free to live like pushovers but others may play the monk and stay lean amid the murmur of books, retreating to inner forests without leaving their apartments. In a society of penury, there is no alternative. One is condemned to a state of want, and conditioned by it. Willpower is neither here nor there. A famous Soviet joke says a guy goes into a butcher’s shop and asks: ‘You have any bread?’ Answer: ‘Ah, no, this is the place where we have no meat, so for the place where they have no bread, go next door to the bakery.’ The Hungarian lady who raised me taught me such things and I often think of her. The consumer society is a somewhat vile expression, born of the phantasm of childish grown-ups disappointed at having been too spoiled. They haven’t the strength to reform on their own and dream of being constrained to live in sober moderation.”
Ouch! There is a lot in my own life that I see reflected in that vicious little paragraph, but perhaps I can learn to play the monk in amongst society after all, denied the more obvious pleasure of a cabin in the woods, an axe, a good supply of tomato ketchup and a fishing rod with which to supply my proteinous needs. It’s a reasonable aspiration.
Consolations of the Forest is most certainly a consoling book. It is gentle and meandering, nothing much happens and you don’t really want it to either. Tesson’s reflections are little moments of calm in a chaotic world, interrupted on occasion by a bear or Russian generals blowing things up on the icy lake. He quaffs vodka with relish and smokes a cigar and enjoys watching the sun go down, or the clouds over the lake, or hiking to the top of a nearby mountain and camping in the open. It’s all very blissful (except when it’s not), and I can’t help feeling just that little bit jealous, much as I did when reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, on reading about someone who granted themselves the luxury of spending a little time entirely by themself, unencumbered by the demands and expectations of society, reading, thinking, reflecting and learning a little about who they are and what they really need. I can’t do that, not right now, but in the meantime I can still enjoy the pleasure of reading about it. Dubai might be a distant, frenetic dream, but Tesson’s cabin in the taiga will be remain a little anchorage of peace and calm in my memory for a long, long time.