In Memoriam: Dieter E. Zimmer, by Stephen Blackwell

Submitted by stephen_blackwell on Mon, 07/06/2020 - 08:03

In Memoriam Dieter E. Zimmer

Dieter E. Zimmer embodied that rarest of combinations: maximum quality and maximum humility.  I met him (my only lucky chance) at the 2002 Nabokov Museum conference in St. Petersburg.  During that event's excursion to Rozhdestveno, he called those of us who were nearby over to him: he had caught one of the many Peacock Butterflies (Inachis io) that were flying in the tangled bank by the Oredezh River, and wanted to show us, as Nabokov had shown him with his own hands, the proper "thorax-squeeze" kill of a butterfly.  Like so many--nearly all!--of the entries in his extraordinary "A Guide to Nabokov's Butterflies and Moths," his description of this one is lapidary, meticulous, and possesses an empirical beauty that Nabokov surely would have admired. I'll copy it here in full:


Inachis (ex Vanessa, ex Aglais) io Linnaeus, 1758 [Nymphalidae, Nymphalinae, Nymphalini]: In much of Europe, this common and rather variable species is considered a particularly beautiful butterfly. Its wingspan is 50–60 mm. In the corners of each of its dark reddish brown and quite ragged wings there is a large eyespot, a red one on the primaries and a blue one on the secondaries. Its range is from W Europe across temperate Asia to Japan. It is one of the butterflies that have profited from agriculture and urbanization, the larvae feeding on nettles and the imagos on clover fields as well as on city gardens.

According to Nabokov (Speak, Memory), in the nineteenth century it had been scarce in the region of St. Petersburg. The butterfly Nabokov captures and kills for the camera in the gardens of the Montreux Palace Hotel in the tv film of the Bayerischer Rundfunk (spring 1972) is a Peacock butterfly.

*SpeakM 12, 75; Gift 109; Ada 524; Lep1 31; Lep2 268; LtVé 193

&  Ac: Ínachis/Vanéssa ío • En: Peacock Butterfly • Fr: le paon de jour, (Ada) le Paon du Jour • Ge: Tagpfauenauge • It: occhio di pavone, pavone di giorno, vanessa io • Ru: нимфа Ио, (Dar) павлиний глаз • Sp: pavo real

Many of the other entries are much longer, of course, and include amusing or sad digressions that the insects themselves (or their cultural or natural histories) lead us on. Although the web site is a joy and a revelation, it would be worth someone taking the trouble to reprint the book, even without the butterfly images, which can be viewed on line: holding Zimmer's prose and his discoveries in one's hands, flipping to a random page and imagining both the fascinating world he describes, and the work he put into describing it, is revelatory and inspirational. I hope someone will take such a publication on, despite the unprofitability.

Dieter's self-deprecation rose to the level of an art form all its own.  I was secretly glad that he had to decline to participate in Fine Lines due to his intense ongoing work on Ada annotations in German--with failing eyes; the secret plan all along was to dedicate the book to him, and his participation would have made that awkward. When he saw the book, he wrote me profusely about how absurd such a dedication was because he was so undeserving, had contributed so little to the Nabokov scholarly world (!!).  I replied that I wasn't going to argue with him on that point, and added that soon, if he didn't watch out, he might win a prize for modesty, as well. The endless feeling that "there's always so much more" must have driven him to always know that "what's done is never enough".  An extraordinary man, a moving life. He enriched us all in so many ways.

-Stephen Blackwell