In 1897, Anton Chekhov is dining with a wealthy publisher named Suvorin, at an elegant restaurant in Moscow. The two share an awareness of their peasant origins, although Suvorin’s politics are reactionary and Chekhov’s are quite the opposite. During the dinner, Chekhov experiences his first hemorrhage; the blood gushing from his mouth indicates that he has tuberculosis. Even while he is recuperating in a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, however, Chekhov denies that anything serious is wrong with him. (Raymond Carver quotes from the memoirs of Chekhov’s younger sister, Maria. During a visit with Chekhov at the clinic, she saw a doctor’s drawing of Chekhov’s lungs and recognized that the doctor had told him he was seriously ill.)
The author Leo Tolstoy also visits Chekhov during this time; although he does not like Chekhov’s plays, he admires his short stories. During the visit, he tells Chekhov his ideas about immortality, ideas that Chekhov cannot share. Chekhov confines his beliefs to things that he can experience with his senses.
Chekhov spends much of his illness in denial, constantly insisting that he is getting better or that he is about to improve, even in his last weeks of life. He spends those weeks at Badenweiler, a popular German resort frequented by Russians, accompanied by his adored wife, Olga Knipper. The couple had met when Olga acted in Chekhov’s Chayka (1896; The Seagull, 1909), and married in 1901. After a lengthy and complicated courtship, Chekhov has found marriage to be a happy experience.
Before going to Badenweiler, Chekhov consulted a specialist in Berlin, but that doctor had summarily dismissed him because his disease was far too advanced for treatment. A Russian journalist who visited Chekhov at about this time confirmed for his editor that the famous writer seemed to have entered the last stages of his...
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“Errand” has special significance in the Carver canon, for it is the last story in his last collection, Where I’m Calling From. Because it was published not long before Carver’s death, when he knew he had cancer, and because it deals with the death of one of Carver’s most treasured progenitors, Chekhov, it takes on a particular poignancy as a kind of farewell tribute to the short-story writer’s craft and art.
Much of the story seems less a unified narrative than a straightforward report of Chekhov’s death in a hotel in the resort city of Badenweiler, Switzerland. The story recounts without comment Chekhov’s last hours, as a doctor visits him in his room and as his wife, Olga Knipper, stands by helplessly. Knowing that it is hopeless and that it is only a matter of minutes, the doctor orders champagne and three glasses from the kitchen. A few minutes after taking a drink, Chekhov dies.
Up to this point, “Errand” is not really a story at all, for it does not have the implied “point” that is typical of the short story—especially since the innovations were introduced by Chekhov himself. What makes it a story is the appearance of the young waiter who brings the champagne. When the young man returns to the room the next morning to bring a vase of roses and to pick up the champagne bottle and glasses, Olga Knipper, who has spent the remainder of the night sitting alone with Chekhov’s body, urges him to go into the town and find a mortician, someone who takes great pains in his work and whose manner is appropriately reserved.
(The entire section is 654 words.)