the errand


We were speaking of Raymond Carver's short story "The Errand" in class tonight. The story details the death of Anton Chekhov in Badenweiler, Germany in 1904. I mentioned that the story was in some part borrowed from the Michael Henry Heim translation of Henry Troyat's biography, Chekhov. Troyat’s rendering of Chekhov’s death is based largely on the writings of Chekhov’s wife Olga Knipper, an actress with the Moscow Art Theater. She was with her husband when he died of tuberculosis at a spa in Badenweiler, Germany. Carver lifted passages whole cloth from Troyat. Large chunks of nine paragraphs, comma for comma, word for word, in some cases. 

1.  In Troyat: Dr. Ewald spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness and left without a word.      

      In Carver: “ . . . [Ewald] threw up his hands and left the room without a word.”

 2. Troyat: “After an interview with Chekhov the Berlin correspondent for Russian News reported to his editor: “I am of the opinion that Chekhov’s days are numbered. He seemed mortally ill; he was terribly thin, coughed all the time, gasped for breath at the slightest movement; and was running a high temperature.”

     Carver: A Russian journalist happened to visit the Chekhovs at their hotel and sent back this dispatch to his editor: “Chekhov’s days are numbered.  He seems mortally ill, is terribly thin, coughs all the time, gasps for breath at the slightest movement, and is running a high temperature.”

 3. Troyat: “The same journalist saw the Chekhovs off at the Potsdam station, where after three days in Berlin they took the train for Badenweiler in the Black Forest. ‘He had trouble making his way up the small staircase at the station,” he wrote, ‘and sat down for several minutes to catch his breath. But as the train began to pull out, he disregarded my plea and leaned out of the window to nod good-bye.”

    Carver: “This same journalist saw the Chekhovs off at the Potsdam station when they boarded their train for Badenweiler. According to his account, “Chekhov had trouble making his way up the small staircase at the station. He had to sit down for several seconds to catch his breath.”

 4. Troyat: “Badenweiler is a spa on the western edge of the Black Forest not far from Basel    . . .”

    Carver: “Badenweiler is a spa and resort city in the western area of the Black Forest, not far from Basel.”

 5.  Troyat: “. . . he prescribed a diet of cocoa, oatmeal drenched in butter, and strawberry tea (‘to aid the patient’s sleep’).”

     Carver: “Instead he prescribed a diet of cocoa, oatmeal drenched in butter, and strawberry tea. This last was supposed to help Chekhov sleep at night.”

 6. Troyat: “. . . requesting information on departure dates for boats en route to Odessa from Trieste or Marseilles.”

    Carver: “He asked for information on sailings of boats bound for Odessa from Marseilles.”

 7. Troyat: “. . . she recalled that there were two Russian students in the room next door.  She ran and woke them, and one of them immediately rushed off to fetch Dr. Schworer. ‘I can still hear the sound of the gravel under his shoes in the silence of that stifling July night,’ she later wrote.”

    Carver: “Two young Russians on holiday happened to have the adjacent room, and Olga hurried next door to explain what was happening. One of the youths was in his bed asleep, but the other was still awake, smoking and reading. He left the hotel at a run to find Dr. Schwohrer.  ‘I can still hear the sound of the gravel under his shoes in the silence of that stifling July night,’ Olga wrote later in her memoirs.”

 8. Troyat: “Schwohrer immediately gave him a camphor injection, but his heart failed to react.  He was about to send for an oxygen pillow when Chekhov, lucid to the end, protested in a broken voice, “What’s the use?  Before it arrives, I’ll be a corpse.”

     Carver: “Dr. Schwohrer prepared a hypodermic and administered an injection of camphor, something that was supposed to speed up the heart. But the injection didn’t help . . .  Nevertheless the doctor made it known to Olga his intention of sending for oxygen. Suddenly Chekhov roused himself, became lucid, and said quietly, ‘What’s the use? Before it arrives, I’ll be a corpse.’”

 9.  Troyat: “When it came, Chekhov took a glass and, turning to Olga, said with a smile, ‘It’s been so long since I’ve had champagne.’ He emptied the glass slowly and lay down on his left side. A few moments later he stopped breathing.”

    Carver: “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. . . .  Then Chekhov turned onto his side.  He closed his eyes and sighed. A minute later, his breathing stopped..”

 10.  Troyat: “A large black-winged moth had flown in through the window and was banging wildly against the lamp.”

       Carver: “A large, black-winged moth flew through a window and banged wildly against the electric lamp.”

 11.  Troyat: “All at once there was a joyous explosion: the cork had popped out of the champagne bottle and foam was fizzing out after it.”

       Carver: “It was at that moment that the cork popped out of the champagne bottle; foam spilled down onto the table.”

 12.  Troyat: Fever had made Chekhov delirious. He went on about a sailor or asked about the Japanese, his eyes shining. But when Olga tried to place an ice bag on his chest, he suddenly regained consciousness and said, “Don’t put ice on an empty stomach.”

      Carver: “Chekhov was hallucinating, talking about sailors, and there were snatches of something about the Japanese. ‘You don’t put ice on an empty stomach,’ he said when she tried to place an ice pack on his chest.”

About this last quote. Ronald Hingley in his book A New Life of Anton Chekhov, 1976, documented the same moment, based on Olga’s memoirs, but with a different quote. “As a last resort [Olga] prepared an ice pack to press against his heart. Still conscious but now clearly approaching his end, Chekhov remarked that, ‘you don’t put ice on an empty heart.’” Heart, not stomach. Quite a difference. Had Carver not read Hingley’s version? Had he decided the quote was too sentimental? 

What do writers of stories, make of this unattributed acquistion of another's work? Some of us wondered if he were lazy. Some were outraged. I said that I had never seen anything written about the obvious appropriation. In English departments we'd call it plagiarism. Tonight I did a quick Google search for "carver the errand plagiarism" and found these two mentions:


Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.” 

--Mark Athetakis' American Fiction Notes

here a scholar seems a bit unsure of herself:

The hypotext of “Errand” is to be found in and between the lines of the text, contingent on the reader’s perspicacity. It remains implicit or fictive, since no single, identifiable text can be found, as well as multiple. The hypotext stems from many sources of information: Suvorin’s and Tolstoy’s diaries, Marie Chekhov’s and Olga Knipper’s memoirs, Chekhov’s words as reported by different people, and the various biographies Carver may have consulted, notably Henry Troyat’s Chekhov. Thus, the story proves unstable and uncertain at its core. It takes root in a hypothetical and nonexistent combination of documents that contaminate each other without leaving traces. Different genres are also mixed (diary, memoir, letter, and press release), and different voices run through the hypertext. These voices express themselves in the direct style of letters or spoken words, in the past-tense narration of memoirs, and in the present-tense narration of diaries or newspapers. There is no single, unifying voice, such as that of an extradiegetic narrator who alone controls the narrative. Rather, there is a constant intertextual contamination, the strains of which we may or may not manage to distinguish. To put the matter more poetically, there is a discreet polyphony. The free indirect style that becomes increasingly dominant in parts three and four develops this polyphony, gradually establishing a second narative voice and a second story.

--Journal of the Short Story in English, Claudine Verley

May have consulted?