On the first page of Tolstoy’s 1859 novella, “Family Happiness,” the protagonist informs the reader he is “wasting a second winter in the solitude of the country.” Yearning for the hustle and bustle of the city, he finds himself fighting “dejection, loneliness, and simple boredom.”
The first page of “The Consolations of the Forest,” by French-born writer and traveler Sylvain Tesson, reveals the contrary. The Russian countryside — specifically, the Siberian taiga — is an exile Tesson craved. So much so that he opted to spend six months in a Siberian cabin, 75 miles from the nearest village with no neighbors and in extreme temperatures. “In short: paradise.” Tesson’s engaging book, winner of the Prix Médicis for nonfiction and skillfully translated by Linda Coverdale, is “the journal of a hermit’s life,” one in which Tesson candidly records his rich experiences and reveals his equally illuminating self-discoveries.
Tesson’s chapters are comprised of months, from February to July. When he arrives, the ice covering mile-deep Lake Baikal is almost 4 feet thick. We get more hard facts, from his requisite rations (maps and compasses but also “10 boxes of acetaminophen for vodka hangovers”) to a crate of books (“If asked why I’ve come to shut myself up here, I’ll say I was behind in my reading”). Tesson settles in and is soon spending his days ice-skating, fishing and hiking across the Russian vastness, or else snug in his cabin reading, writing and trying to make the perfect blini.
Despite the cold, and the mosquito-plagued hot months, Tesson paints a cozy picture. His sojourn isn’t all solitary confinement: He befriends gamekeepers, fishermen and rangers with whom he makes huge dents in his vodka supply, and he adopts a pair of dogs. However, a gritty reality regularly obtrudes to tarnish the soft focus. Tesson is always alert to marauding bears and prowling wolves. His girlfriend contacts him to end their relationship. Winter is interminable.
And yet not once does Tesson come close to giving up and going home. His positive attitude is one of the book’s highlights, together with his shrewd summaries of the books he reads (one, aptly, being “Robinson Crusoe”) and his lyrical descriptions of his environs (“Silence falls from the sky in little white shavings”). The forest affords Tesson consolation but also encourages contemplation, his isolation engendering interesting philosophical reveries on art, literature, nature and the freedom of the wilderness vs. cheek-by-jowl city life. Tesson only ceases to be good company when distilling his thoughts and experiences into aphorisms. Solitude is “a salve for wounds,” “A retreat is a revolt.” Some edify; others irritate.
“Innocent people were dumped for twenty-five years into this nightmare,” Tesson reminds us at the start of his adventure. But “The Consolations of the Forest” is no gulag sentence for its writer, nor is it a punishing ordeal for the reader. At the end of Tesson’s stay, we come away a little wiser about a harsh region and the resilience of the human spirit. Tesson, after time-out from the madding crowd, and after laying bare his soul, reflects on how far he has traveled: “I knew winter and spring, happiness, despair, and in the end, peace.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.