I won’t both doing a roll call any more.  You’re either here or you’re not.  However, I should say, I’m very satisfied with myself that I managed to get all the way through the first volume (out of four) of my little Garnett translation.

But seeing as I’m still a day behind, let me not gibber on endlessly about that . . .

This chapter begins with Pierre sitting in a post-station.  I wasn’t exactly sure what this was, so I’ve done a bit (but only a small bit, mind you) of ferreting around in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (by Shorter, I mean two massive slabs that you wouldn’t want to carry anywhere).

Maybe someone else can fill in the blanks, but from what I understand, travelling by post was a little bit like getting a hire car.  You pick up a horse at one post-station or post-house, ride it a certain distance until you reach the next post-house, and then you pick up a new horse to continue the journey.

In Pierre’s case, he’s arrived and there’s no horses currently available.  So when the post-master says that he can have the courier horses, he’s probably offering him horses that were set aside particularly for mail delivery (or maybe even military messages).

All of this is a side note, however, to what is going on in Pierre’s head.  What I find most amusing about this chapter is that it captures the very human tendency to only really think about the big questions when things are going pear-shaped.

For instance, have you noticed that amongst your friends and relatives who are all happily employed, life is going well – that nobody ever stops to talk much about what life means, is there a higher Power behind it all, the reality of death, etc?

In fact, if you do meet somebody who is obsessing over these questions (and is openly talking about them), it’s usually a sign that things aren’t so good somewhere else – they might be single, or recovering from a relationship break-up, work might be going badly.

The odd thing is that none of these questions are dumb questions, and it would make sense that we should sit down on a regular basis and think through the meaning of life, so we can work out whether we’re spending our days well or not.  But it just seems to be a fact of modern life (and obviously back in the 1800s as well), that we often only stop to contemplate these things when life is not doing so well.  Which is a shame, because we don’t the clear head that would be so useful in these discussions.

Anyway, Pierre’s head is about to get more complex (if my memory serves me correctly) with the arrival of the mysterious gentleman at the post-station.

2 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 5.1 – Life, The Universe and Everything

  1. Thanks very much for your explanation of a post station Matt. I was too lazy to even Google it, let alone consult the OED – but the description does make sense and certainly fits in with other references to post stations that I have read. Lermontov’s novel “A Hero of our Time” opens with the words “I was travelling post from Tiflis” – wich now, at last, makes some sense.

    You’re probably right, too, that most of us only ponder the big questions when things are in a mess – although I tend to think that if things still have to be reasonably stable and comfortable for us to be able to think about the big issues: people who are enduring unfathomable suffering, hardship and poverty usually are expending all their energies just on survival. And so, in that sense, I reckon that address the big philosophical questions is a luxury of affluence; but what you say is true, too – it’s usually only the people who feel dislocated or displaced who start questioning “why”. Which, in itself is a bit worrying, because it tends to suggest that the answers to life’s big questions are mainly generated by the depressed middle classes, and so it leaves you wondering how valid their solutions might really be!!

    Anyway, having said all that, I love the way Russian novels have these sorts of “what’s it all about, it’s all just idle, meaningless nonsense” type passages.

    And while we now know very well that Tolstoy has a way of describing even the insignificant background with a level of detail that makes it signiicant, I know that even on my first reading of War and Peace, when I read about this little old man at the post station, I thought he was going to be somehow important.

  2. Bazdeev – Joseph Alexeevich – The Free Mason

    The newcomer was a short, large-boned, yellow-faced, wrinkled old man, with gray bushy eyebrows overhanging bright eyes of an indefinite grayish color.

    Bazdeev’s Servant –

    His servant was also a yellow, wrinkled old man, without beard or mustache, evidently not because he was shaven but because they had never grown.

    De Souza – Madame de Souza –

    His servant handed him a half-cut novel, in the form of letters, by Madame de Souza. He began reading about the sufferings and virtuous struggles of a certain Emilie de Mansfeld.

    Here is Mme. De Souza here . . .


    I don’t know if this is the same person here – I suppose it is.


    Mansfeld – Emilie de Mansfeld –

    His servant handed him a half-cut novel, in the form of letters, by Madame de Souza. He began reading about the sufferings and virtuous struggles of a certain Emilie de Mansfeld.

    Peasant Woman – Selling Torzhok Embroidery

    The postmaster, his wife, the valet, and a peasant woman selling Torzhok embroidery came into the room offering their services.


    Postmaster –

    At the Torzhok post station, either there were no horses or the postmaster would not supply them.

    Postmaster’s wife –

    The postmaster, his wife, the valet, and a peasant woman selling Torzhok embroidery came into the room offering their services.

    Valet – Pierre’s Valet

    “Will you have the portmanteaus brought in? And a bed got ready, and tea?” asked his valet.


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