Saturday, July 9, 2011

On the Occasion of the Burial of Anton Chekhov

On this day in 1904, Anton Chekhov was buried in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery.  By all accounts, the event was closer to a circus than an interment.  The great Russian writer had died a week earlier at a German spa where he'd gone with his wife Olga in a last-ditch effort to stave off the tuberculosis which would eventually kill him at age 44.

A year ago, The Barnes and Noble Review's "Daybook" feature described the Chekhov funeral and it moved me so much I added a reminder on my calendar to mark the occasion here on the blog 365 days later:
      Maxim Gorky attended Chekhov’s funeral, and later described it as an outrage. His friend, “who squirmed at anything vile and vulgar,” had been transported from Germany in a refrigerated railcar marked, “For Oysters.” Part of the throng of mourners became confused by another funeral, that of an army general, and marched off to the strains of a military band. Among those who made it to the graveyard were many who “climbed trees and laughed, broke crosses and swore as they fought for a place. They asked loudly, 'Which is the wife? And the sister? Look, they're crying....” The family did not arrive until the procession was midway, and because students guarding the cortege didn't recognize them they had to force their way in.
      But others have commented that the funeral scene was entirely Chekhovian, a moment of tragicomedy to go with his legendary and poignant death.

Someday, I think I'll write a short story called "For Oysters" and the main character will be Chekhov's corpse decaying in the fishy stink of the funereal railcar traveling through Europe.

The definitive short story about Chekhov's demise has already been written, of course: "Errand" by Raymond Carver.

This piece of short fiction starts out as an atypical Carver story as it describes in quasi-documentary style Chekhov's illness and final days in Badenweiler, the German spa town.  Here's how Carver describes the last moments, after the doctor has concluded the end was near (he "knew the time could be reckoned in minutes") and has ordered a bottle of the hotel's best champagne:
Methodically, the way he did everything, the doctor went about the business of working the cork out of the bottle. He did it in such a way as to minimize, as much as possible, the festive explosion. He poured three glasses and, out of habit, pushed the cork back into the neck of the bottle. He then took the glasses of champagne over to the bed. Olga momentarily released her grip on Chekhov's hand--a hand, she said later, that burned her fingers. She arranged another pillow behind his head. Then she put the cool glass of champagne against Chekhov's palm and made sure his fingers closed around the stem. They exchanged looks--Chekhov, Olga, Dr. Schwohrer. They didn't touch glasses. There was no toast. What on earth was there to drink to? To death? Chekhov summoned his remaining strength and said, "It's been so long since I've had champagne." He brought the glass to his lips and drank. In a minute or two Olga took the empty glass from his hand and set it on the nightstand. Then Chekhov turned onto his side. He closed his eyes and sighed. A minute later, his breathing stopped.

You see?  Straight, barely-adorned biography (in Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, Carol Sklenicka notes he'd recently read Henri Troyat's Chekhov and was unapologetically "cherry-picking episodes" from the French biography).  The very end of the story, the "errand" portion of the plot, is very Carverian, however, and he leaves us, as he so often does, in mid-stroke of the action.  In this case, a young waiter who has come to the Chekhov's hotel room after the writer's death reaches for the champagne cork which has fallen to the floor near his feet.
To retrieve it he would have to bend over, still gripping the vase. He would do this. He leaned over. Without looking down, he reached out and closed it into his hand.

We're left to ponder the significance of the action and to whom it matters most: the wild-haired waiter, the grief-stricken Olga, or perhaps Chekhov himself who, though his body has cooled, remains a presence in the story.  As always, Carver provides many avenues for us to choose as we exit the story.  It's the type of closure I think Anton Pavlovich would have appreciated.  Even if he does smell like oysters in the afterlife.


  1. so why then was the waiter picking up the cork off the floor when it was described above that the doctor pushed the cork back into the neck of the bottle?

  2. Anon,

    I left out a good chunk of Carver's story, including this paragraph, which comes just after the doctor leaves to fill out the death certificate:

    It was at this moment that the cork popped out of the champagne bottle; foam spilled down onto the table. Olga went back to Chekhov's bedside. She sat on a footstool, holding his hand, from time to time stroking his face. "There were no human voices, no everyday sounds," she wrote. "There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death."

    To get the full impact, I highly suggest everyone read "Errand," one of Carver's best.