HARVARD DIARY
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 I’m 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 Carver’s farewell for this publishing occasion — an evocation of Chekhov’s last days, last moments. A master of short fiction, Carver attends a kind of lit­erary and historical factuality — the great Chek­hov’s all too early, untimely encounter with death.

Carver obviously studied Chekhov’s 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 Chekhov’s 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 don’t understand it, and he Nikolayevich was astonished I didn’t.” Chekhov’s 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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