Sylvain Tessot’s Dans les Forets de Siberie (2011)

In 2010 a Parisian author 37 years old went to live alone from February to July in a cabin at the edge of Lake Baikal, in Siberia, where he maintained diary on a daily basis, interrupted only for a spell when he needed to travel to arrange a visa. Apparently unrevised, he published these writings as a book. Wisely, he tells little of his life before he entered the cabin, although we learn of an unwelcome development on the home front towards the end of his months there. Encounters with any number of eccentric visitors and the company of two small dogs do not prevent Tessot from being alone. There are fine descriptions of the environment and the changes that occur as the seasons rotate. He has at his disposal a wide range of cultural references: ‘The gold of the branches, the blue of the lake, the white of breaks in the ice: the palette of Hokusai.’ Many of his observations bear thinking about. ‘There is joy in these forests but not one ounce of humour.’ ‘Happiness (by the lake) becomes this simple thing: waiting for something that you know is going to happen…In the city, a contrary principle: one demands a permanent efflorescence of unforeseen novelties.’ Very occasionally one wonders what is really being said: ‘Life in the cabin is an energetic profession of faith at the antipodes of historical prometheanism.’

But his sojourn by the lake did not lack its comforts. On 21 February he put away half a litre of vodka; on 12 March he accounted for two and a half litres of beer. Five glasses of vodka seems to be the point at which he is able to see the world in a new light, and at which it becomes more difficult to stop drinking; wisely, he entered the cabin equipped with 20 boxes of paracetamol, to deal with the effects of vodka. As the end of his time by the lake approaches he anxiously checks his supplies, finding 22 litres of Kedrovaia, three of pepper vodka, a dozen partagas and five boxes of cigarillos, each containing 20, and reckons that that should be enough to fight the demons.

Tesson went to the hut wanting to know if he had an interior life. It is hard to imagine a better place than the one he chose for undistracted drilling down into the depths of one’s life and trying to make sense of it. It is with a feeling of disappointment that one realises that, despite his clever aphorisms and witty apercus, Tesson spent much of his time anesthetizing himself against the demons rather than fighting them. There is something gross in the idea of him smoking a cigar in the evening in front of an icon of St Seraphim of Sarov. Seraphim, a true man of the woods, lived for years as a hermit with nothing to distract him from coming to grips with reality. While abandoning many of the things that can get in the way of self-knowledge, Tesson seems never to have been serious in dealing with the demons.

One comment

  • Elroy

    I did enjoy reading your comments – always so elegantly phrased. On the whole I agree with you. I too enjoyed this book and was rather dismayed by the quantity of alcohol consumed. I was touched by many moments of sensitivity – saving drowning butterflies, for instance. While I was very impressed by the depth and complexity of most of the author’s reading matter, I did not feel that this sufficiently flowed into the substance of the book; and so I felt a tinge of disappointment.

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