Raymond Carver's Dying Chekhov
October 1988By Robert Coles
Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School. His latest book is Harvard Diary, a collection of his columns from the NOR, published by Crossroad.
At the end of his collection of stories titled Where Im Calling From, Raymond Carver breaks pace, leaves his own mid-20th-century American world of ordinary men and women whose persistent hard luck, interrupted by brief moments of satisfaction, he has chronicled these past two decades in order to enter another century, another country, another human landscape. Errand is Carvers farewell for this publishing occasion an evocation of Chekhovs last days, last moments. A master of short fiction, Carver attends a kind of literary and historical factuality the great Chekhovs all too early, untimely encounter with death.
Carver obviously studied Chekhovs life carefully, but he does not write as a biographer. He has a dramatic presentation in mind yet another of his unsettling penetrations of our moral and social complacency. He initially gives us the Chekhov of 37, who suddenly hemorrhages in a restaurant, the first sign of a tuberculosis which would seven years later claim his life. For a long time the ailing playwright and storyteller tried to make light of his illness, even though, being a physician, too, he well knew the serious threat it posed to his life. He did so not because he was psychologically in trouble, nor out of some fatuous inclination to hope against hope, no matter the obvious progression of an invasive disease ever hungry for more and more lung Lebensraum. Nor did he do so out of religious conviction.
In that last regard, Carver gives us Tolstoy as Chekhovs loving admirer and hospital visitor. Tolstoy assumes that all of us (humans and animals alike) will live on in a principle (such as reason or love) the essence and goals of which are a mystery to us . I have no use for that kind of immortality. I dont understand it, and he Nikolayevich was astonished I didnt. Chekhovs apparent indifference to the mortal jeopardy fate had presented him as an untimely offering was the response of a shrewd physician and observer of the human scene: we come, we go, and alarmed, wordy discussions or exclamations are to no avail.
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