The characters of VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) include Nina Lecerf (alias Mme de Rechnoy), the woman who plays a fatal role in Sebastian’s life. Her name hints at Nina Zarechnyi, a character in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896). On the other hand, cerf is French for “deer” and brings to mind a herd of deer that in Chekhov’s story Palata № 6 (“Ward No. 6,” 1892) the hero sees before his death:
Андрей Ефимыч понял, что ему пришёл конец, и вспомнил, что Иван Дмитрич, Михаил Аверьяныч и миллионы людей верят в бессмертие. А вдруг оно есть? Но бессмертия ему не хотелось, и он думал о нём только одно мгновение. Стадо оленей, необыкновенно красивых и грациозных, о которых он читал вчера, пробежало мимо него; потом баба протянула к нему руку с заказным письмом... Сказал что-то Михаил Аверьяныч. Потом всё исчезло, и Андрей Ефимыч забылся навеки.
Andrey Efimych understood that his end had come, and remembered that Ivan Dmitrich, Mikhail Averyanych, and millions of people believed in immortality. And what if it really existed? But he did not want immortality -- and he thought of it only for one instant. A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter. . . . Mikhail Averyanych said something, then it all vanished, and Andrey Efimych sank into oblivion forever. (chapter XIX)
In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Shestov points out that the doctor in “Ward No. 6” dies beautifully: in his last minutes he sees a herd of deer, etc.:
И, кажется, “Палату № 6” в своё время очень сочувственно приняли. Кстати прибавим, что доктор умирает очень красиво: в последние минуты видит стадо оленей и т. п. (VI)
The penname Shestov comes from shest’ (six). In the name Knight there are six letters. A man at the St. Damier hospital tells Sebastian’s half-brother V. (the narrator in TRLSK) that foreign names ought to be always replaced by numbers:
'What was the name?' he asked with a sigh.
'Knight,' I said. 'It begins with a "K". It is an English name.'
'Foreign names ought to be always replaced by numbers,' muttered the man, 'it would simplify matters. There was a patient who died last night, and he had a name....'
I was struck by the horrible thought that he might be referring to Sebastian.... Was I too late after all?
'Do you mean to say....' I began, but he shook his head and turned the pages of a ledger on his desk.
'No,' he growled, 'the English Monsieur is not dead. K, K, K....'
'K, n, i, g...' I began once again.
'C'est bon, c'est bon,' he interrupted. 'K, n, K, g... n... I'm not an idiot, you know. Number thirty-six.' (Chapter 20)
The patient in Ward No. 36 (who is asleep and to whose breathing V. listens thinking that it is his brother) turns out to be a Mr. Kegan (and the patient who died last night was Sebastian):
'You could see Doctor Guinet even now,' continued the nurse in her quiet pleasant voice. 'He lives next door. So you are the brother, are you? And tomorrow his mother is coming from England, n'est-ce pas?'
'Oh, no,' I said, 'his mother died years ago. And tell me, how is he during the day, does he talk? does he suffer?'
She frowned and looked at me queerly.
'But...' she said. 'I don't understand.... What is your name, please?'
'Right,' I said. 'I haven't explained. We are half-brothers, really. My name is [I mentioned my name].'
'Oh-la-la!' she exclaimed getting very red in the face, 'Mon Dieu! The Russian gentleman died yesterday, and you've been visiting Monsieur Kegan.... (ibid.)
In the name Kegan (as in Ragin, the doctor’s name in Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6”) there are five letters. According to Dr Fitzbishop (a character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969), in the Kalugano Hospital (where Van recovers from the wound received in a duel with Captain Tapper) hopeless cases are kept in Ward Five:
Dr Fitzbishop congratulated him on having escaped with a superficial muscle wound, the bullet having lightly grooved or, if he might say so, grazed the greater serratus. Doc Fitz commented on Van’s wonderful recuperational power which was already in evidence, and promised to have him out of disinfectants and bandages in ten days or so if for the first three he remained as motionless as a felled tree-trunk. Did Van like music? Sportsmen usually did, didn't they? Would he care to have a Sonorola by his bed? No, he disliked music, but did the doctor, being a concert-goer, know perhaps where a musician called Rack could be found? 'Ward Five,' answered the doctor promptly. Van misunderstood this as the title of some piece of music and repeated his question. Would he find Rack's address at Harper's music shop? Well, they used to rent a cottage way down Dorofey Road, near the forest, but now some other people had moved in. Ward Five was where hopeless cases were kept. (1.42)
In his essay on Chekhov Shestov calls Chekhov pevets beznadyozhnosti (the bard of hopelessness):
Чтобы в двух словах определить его тенденцию, я скажу: Чехов был певцом безнадежности. Упорно, уныло, однообразно в течение всей своей почти 25-летней литературной деятельности Чехов только одно и делал: теми или иными способами убивал человеческие надежды. В этом, на мой взгляд, сущность его творчества. (I)
The name of the Kalugano surgeon, Fitzbishop, brings to mind Clare Bishop, in TRLSK Sebastian’s girlfriend whom he left for Nina Lecerf. Knight and bishop are chessmen, damier is French for “chess board:”
Who were those idle idiots who wrote on the wall 'Death to the Jews' or 'Vive le front populaire', or left obscene drawings? Some anonymous artist had begun blacking squares — a chess board, ein Schachbrett, un damier.... There was a flash in my brain and the word settled on my tongue: St Damier! (Chapter 20)
Before leaving Ardis forever, Philip Rack (Lucette’s music teacher and composer who was poisoned by his jealous wife) asks Ada if there is no hope for him any more:
The melancholy young German was in a philosophical mood shading into the suicidal. He had to return to Kalugano with his Elsie, who Doc Ecksreher thought ‘would present him with drip lets in dry weeks.’ He hated Kalugano, his and her home town, where in a moment of ‘mutual aberration’ stupid Elsie had given him her all on a park bench after a wonderful office party at Muzakovski’s Organs where the oversexed pitiful oaf had a good job.
'When are you leaving?' asked Ada.
'Forestday - after tomorrow.'
'Fine. That's fine. Adieu, Mr Rack.'
Poor Philip drooped, fingerpainting sad nothings on wet stone, shaking his heavy head, gulping visibly.
'One feels... One feels,' he said, 'that one is merely playing a role and has forgotten the next speech.'
'I'm told many feel that,' said Ada; 'it must be a furchtbar feeling.'
'Cannot be helped? No hope any more at all? I am dying, yes?'
'You are dead, Mr Rack,' said Ada. (1.32)
Lev Shestov (1866-1938) was a celebrated philosopher (cf. Rack’s philosophical mood). “Sad nothings” fingerpainted by Rack bring to mind the title of Shestov’s essay on Chekhov. “Forestday” (Thursday in Rack’s mispronunciation) seems to foreshadow Van’s duel with Tapper in the Kalugano forest. Chekhov is the author of Duel’ (“The Duel,” 1891), a story discussed by Shestov in his essay. The main character in “The Duel,” Laevski is a good example of poshlost’ (vulgarity). According to Van, Dr Fitzbishop is a poshlyak:
On Monday around noon he was allowed to sit in a deckchair, on the lawn, which he had avidly gazed at for some days from his window. Dr Fitzbishop had said, rubbing his hands, that the Luga laboratory said it was the not always lethal 'arethusoides' but it had no practical importance now, because the unfortunate music teacher, and composer, was not expected to spend another night on Demonia, and would be on Terra, ha-ha, in time for evensong. Doc Fitz was what Russians call a poshlyak ('pretentious vulgarian') and in some obscure counter-fashion Van was relieved not to be able to gloat over the wretched Rack's martyrdom. (1.42)