‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver

‘My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.’

A prejudiced, bitter, stoned narrator is asked by his blind guest, a friend of his wife, to draw a cathedral. Their hands both holding the pen, the guest says: “‘Go ahead, bub, draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” It leads to an emotional moment of catharsis and transformation for the narrator ‘like nothing else in life up to now’; he keeps his eyes closed and keeps drawing even when he doesn’t have to. Early Carver includes stories I like a lot, including ‘Fat’ and ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, but they always seem to be written outside of his own skin. I find the Carver brand of nihilism somewhat distancing. This story was the first Carver I read where it felt he was writing with real feeling – he had stopped drinking, had re-evaluated life and in his own words, “was in a period of generosity. The story affirms something” as a result.

In Cathedral (Vintage, 1983)

‘Errand’, by Raymond Carver

As a Chekhov devotee it might seem odd I should choose a story about, not by, Chekhov. But in truth, I prefer his plays, and this, about Chekhov’s final moments and death by champagne is classic Carver – or classic Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor), as we might now be led to believe. Regardless of that, it has all the precision, sobriety and exquisite timing of Carver’s best work with an added Russian flourish, and is the last story in Elephant, the collection published in the final year of Carver’s life. (Carver died aged 50 in 1988). My best friend, Sonia Misak, with whom I’ve been sharing stories both real and imagined  for most of our lives, gave me my copy of Elephant at New Year 1990. Carver was quite possibly already terminally ill when he wrote ‘Errand’, but in it he is exploring Chekhov the writer rather than Chekhov the dying man; and reading it calls to mind that great line of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘I meant to write about death, but life kept breaking in as usual.’

(Originally published in Elephant. Also in from Where I’m Calling From, Harvill, 1993)