Wood burning stoves in literature, the meaning of fire, and the silences in between (Part 1).

I suppose if you’re a car dealer you experience an extra frisson at the point in Goldfinger when Bond leaps into his Bentley to give chase to Drax’s Mercedes, and that vets parse James Herriott’s books with a particularly incisive eye, and that if you work at Ann Summers then Fifty Shades must read like a trade catalogue, but for the wood burning bibliophile, there is a disappointingly meagre smattering of trade-related arcana in the world of literature. This seems surprising given how central fire is to humanity’s existence and persistence, and you certainly might expect to find one, for instance, in the thousand-plus semi-frozen pages of ‘War and Peace’, yet perhaps its very ubiquity disqualifies it from mention.

Whatever, wood burning stoves appeared in two books I read over the summer, Sylvain Tesson’s account of a year living on the shore of Lake Baikal - ‘Consolations of The Forest,’ and John Burnside’s memoir ‘You Put a Spell On Me’.

Tesson is a French explorer and traveller, but his hermetic year in Siberia, like Thoreau’s retreat to the woods a century and a half earlier, is an exercise in staying still.

Having elected to live by the lake alone for a year in a cabin, for no stated reason, Tesson stocks up on essentials – mostly books, cigars and vodka – and moves in. The reader is then treated to a walk through the calendar, season by season, as seen through Tesson’s eyes.

He spends his days chopping wood, digging ice holes, kayaking, staring out of the window, smoking cigars, setting out on arbitrary expeditions to explore the surrounding territory, and tending his stove.

Perhaps because of the steadfast reliability of his stove, as well as his obvious competence in the wild, you soon find yourself discounting his hostile environment and from then on never really feel that he is in any more danger than if he had been on an extended stay at Center Parcs. 

You also can’t help feeling that, as a man who has traversed mountain ranges and continents in solitude and on foot, Tesson has grown so accustomed to hardship that he can’t help inflicting it on himself and others, which sometimes stretches your sympathy with his occasional loneliness and heartbreak. His writing style is declaratory; in the French style, he tells rather than shows.

He extrapolates from his own experience and dares you to challenge the validity of his opinions. While you can easily pick holes in his more didactic assertions, often, in the spaces in between, a luminous elegance shines through.

 He is open enough to allow us insight into the subtle degradation and then refortification he undergoes as a result of his extended solitude, and the litany of his day-to-day activities eventually yields some deeper truths about some of what is important in a life.

Tesson’s self-enforced exile makes him dependent on his stove, leading him in the first instance to consider it from the blunt pragmatic viewpoint of survival, but with so much time on his hands, and being French, it is not long before he is digressing on the socio-economic role it plays in what he terms ‘cabin communism’ which means “eliminating intermediaries”; “the woodsman,” he states, “is an energy recycling machine,” who, “knows where his wood and water come from…The principle of proximity guides his life. He refuses to live in the abstraction of progress and draw upon an energy source about which he knows nothing.”

Tesson is never in any real danger, nor does he have to live in anything that to an outdoorsman could be called discomfort, and, in the end, he leaves the impression of having glided through his ‘gap year’ with a subtly expanded spiritual vocabulary and a remarkable absence of emotional scar tissue.

 I was left with the impression at the end of the book that Tesson had known the lesson his ‘journey’ would teach before he’d even started – that happiness, in a Zen kind of vein, consists, in Einstein’s words, of, ‘A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin – what else does a man need to be happy?’, or perhaps, for Tesson, a cigar, an axe, a window and a ticking stove.

The same cannot be said for Burnside’s searing memoir,’ You Put a Spell On Me’, which, by contrast, is one long, jagged, beautiful wound. His spiritual journey through life has no clearer narrative than that of a pinball, given form only by retrospection, and if every other chapter is pre-titled ‘Digression’, then this seems a clearer, truer reflection of a life than a mere history of events.

 If a man can be said to have a season, Burnside’s is definitely winter: “…there comes a different kind of winter life, cold, frost-hard, almost without scent, so that anything – a snuffed candle, an orange, new bread – any given thing is implausibly rich and sweet, and the least glancing touch becomes a ripple of event, like the paths formed in magnetised iron.”

 This gives the arrival in his life of the wood burning stove a kind of karmic epiphany: “…this ordinary task of tending the fire, alone and finally quiet, begins to feel like an arrival. A belonging. Perhaps it wasn’t always so, but now, watching the flames take, I feel myself coming in, the way an oceangoing boat comes into harbour, slowly, piloted by the ordinary facts of another night.”

He is a writer’s writer, emotionally erudite with an incisive poetic streak that constantly carves new glimpses into what it means to be human. He has been through the mill of life – sometimes, you feel, intentionally – and taken copious notes. For a man of words, whose dealing in the abstract seems to have come at significant emotional cost, the grounding he finds in the primal activities of wood burning is deeply therapeutic: “I split a few logs and go back inside, carrying the cold on my skin like a charm. This is where the body seems truest, where it seems most creaturely…”

For those of us who spend too long thinking about such things, from a single fixed perspective, like staring into a fire (““Les images du feu sont, pour l’homme qui rêve,  pour l’homme qui pense, une école d’intensité” – Gaston Bachelard), and who perhaps run the risk of becoming boring about it, this seems simply like confirmation of the obvious, but it is a truth worth observing, and opens up greater questions too, like the meaning of life, which is…to be continued…

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