Vladimir Nabokov

In Memoriam: Dieter E. Zimmer, by Gerard de Vries

By dana_dragunoiu, 8 July, 2020

In his beautiful obituary, Brian Boyd praises, among much more, Dieter E. Zimmer’s generosity. On several occasions I have greatly profited from Zimmer’s willingness to share his wide knowledge. 

In 1997 the German review Literatur Magazin, published by Rowohlt, devoted a volume to Nabokov, which includes seventy-two years after its publication in Russian in Berlin the first  translation of Nabokov’s  short story “Easter Rain.” As the volume’s co-editor, Dieter Zimmer contributed two essays, one about his hunt for this story, and another, titled “38 Jahre mit Nabokov.” In this essay he answered the question sometimes asked of him (with some concern about his mental condition, he adds) whether he, after so many years, has not grown tired of spending so much time with Nabokov’s oeuvre. In retrospect we know the answer because most of his greatest achievements, listed by Brian Boyd, date from the decades after 1997. In the essay he gives an explanation that, I suppose, all Nabokovians will recognize. He states that an author one has learned to know thoroughly becomes predictable: if you start reading a sentence you know how it will continue. But, Zimmer writes, he has never experienced this with Nabokov.  

He also relates how, when interviewing Nabokov in Montreux (see Think, Write, Speak 353-359), he felt too shy to broach subjects more interesting than the obligatory ones that have been submitted in advance, and how Nabokov, sensing his modesty, made an overture by mentioning his admiration for Fellini, with which Zimmer happily and readily agreed. But when Nabokov proceeded by saying that he liked Fellini’s movie  Juliet of the Spirits  the most, Zimmer rejoined by saying, and this reply, he writes, was new to him  (“was mir selber neu war”), that he could not see its worth. Zimmer’s unpredictability seems no less surprising than Nabokov’s.

Zimmer’s essay is so eminently readable that, when preparing the special issue on Nabokov for the Dutch literary quarterly De Tweede Ronde, I asked him permission to reproduce it. He promptly granted my request.   

In Zimmer’s revised Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths (2001), he presents what D. Barton Johnson in his chapter on Ada calls a “brilliant exegesis” of the passage where Nabokov discusses the painting of a Peacock moth on a wall in a room in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But instead of naming the artist, Nabokov mentions three painters who assisted Vasari in adorning the walls of this room, and a fourth he “dare[s] not mention” (Ada 400). Zimmer unravels all the mysteries this passage contains. He also identifies the tiny spot where the moth is painted in the big room of the palace which is covered in murals wall to wall. Of course, we wanted to have the painting reproduced to illustrate Johnson’s discussion of it in Nabokov and the Art of Painting, and here, too, we received Zimmer’s help. He must have been proud of his discovery as the painted Peacock moth adorns the centre of his website’s homepage.

When the International Vladimir Nabokov Society was granted permission to display Yousuf Karsh’s 1972 portrait on its website, the black-and-white butterfly being prepared by Nabokov was too unclear to be identified. When I solicited his help, Zimmer speculated that it was a pierid. However, when Zimmer discovered that Nabokov had caught three pierids shortly before Karsh took his portrait, he felt almost certain that the butterfly in question was a Colias hyale.

Dieter Zimmer’s fascinating Nabokov’s Whereabouts is another contribution that graces The Nabokovian. One of the last gaps was the location of the Domaine de Beaulieu where Nabokov spent two months as a farm hand in 1923. In this case I was happy to be able to offer my help. Having visited the farm many years ago, I still could point out its position, difficult to recognize because its surroundings have changed drastically. 

Zimmer’s assiduity as a researcher seems unparalleled. Though so many examples come to mind, I conclude with one final example of his extraordinary erudition, presented in his edition of the German translation of Pale Fire, including an essay; copious notes; an essay about the merits of paraphrasing or translating “Pale Fire”; a chronology of the novel’s genesis; a calender pertaining to the novel’s events; a selection from interviews, diaries and letters with Nabokov’s statements about the novel and a section with selected literature.

Having spent many hours rummaging in numerous volumes containing Robert Southey’s letters and having read several biographies, I could not locate the origin of the “roasted rat” mentioned in Pale Fire until I read Zimmer’s edition where he shows that Southey was, indeed, served a roasted rat for supper in May 1819.

Gerard de Vries