Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000338, Wed, 14 Sep 1994 13:40:21 -0700

VN in Germany (fwd)
EDITORIAL NOTE: Dieter Zimmer, the author of the following remarks, is
the Editor of the Collected Works of Nabokov in German, a truly stunning
enterprise that offers much of interest to English-speaking Nabokovians
with its copious annotations that add substantially to an understanding
of many of the works. I and others shall be offering some descriptive
comments on these annotations on NABOKV-L in the near future. Mr.
Zimmer's account of the history of Nabokov in Germany and of his
personal odyssey is of no small interest. He is also the author
of the recent *Les Papillons de Nabokov*.........DBJ

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: 13 Sep 94 06:34:05 EDT
From: Dieter E. Zimmer <100126.2576@compuserve.com>

Rowohlt's Nabokov Edition
By Dieter E. Zimmer

In 1989, the Rowohlt Verlag (a major German publishing house based in
Reinbek, a suburb of Hamburg) began a new edition of Nabokov's works in
German. It is intended to be a uniform set of 24 or 25 numbered volumes.
Twelve have appeared so far. The rest will follow during the next decade.
The edition has earned much praise for its old-fashioned craftsmanship.
The volumes are bound in grey cloth with the countours of a silver
butterfly stamped into it (it is *Lycaeides melissa samuelis* NABOKOV, the
Karner Blue). Their dustjackets are maroon-and-black with author and title
in silver characters and nothing more. The typography is careful and
ample; the publisher even took care to ensure that paper of the same
quality and color will remain available throughout the long period of
The appendices -- and in some measure the text itself -- have
greatly profited from the work of Nabokov scholars, most of them American.
They all are given due credit. In some instances, however, I believe the
Rowohlt edition has been able to add one or the other scholarly detail.
Yet it is practically unknown among Nabokov scholars, German obviously
being a kind of Lethean or Fenugreek. There has been at least one case of
an American commentator re-inventing the wheel: laboriously finding out
anew what the Rowohlt edition had found out years ago. As the person in
charge of it, I for that reason gladly accept Don Barton Johnson's
invitation to diffuse a few words about the Rowohlt set via NABOKV-L. I
will explain the idea of it all and give the general outline; Don Johnson
is going to say something about the different volumes.
I would like to preface my remarks with a few words about Nabokov
in Germany. Whether the Rowohlt undertaking makes sense can only be judged
in the context of the German situation. VN's first translation (or one of
the very first translations he himself made) were Heine poems for a
Russian singer, and the first translations of Nabokov novels were into
German. In 1928, *Mashenka* was translated as *Sie kommt -- kommt sie?*
(She comes -- will she come?). In 1930, *Korol, Dama, Valet* came out as
*Koenig, Dame, Bube*. In both cases, the publisher was the Ullstein-Verlag
in Berlin, a media giant of the time which in one of its branches also
published the emigre Russian language daily *Rul* -- which is how the
connection came about. Before they appeared in book form, both novels
were serialized in the *Vossische Zeitung*, another of Ullstein's
enterprises and a newspaper of renown which the Nazis extinguished in
1934. The former novel appeared in the rather trashy series of the Gelbe
Buecher (Yellow Books); none of them made a noticeable impression on
German letters. However, the rather generous fee Ullstein advanced for the
latter volume was highly welcome at the time and payed for VN's butterfly
collecting trip to Southern France in the summer of 1930. Today both books
are extremely rare and not to be had at any price. Then there was a long
pause, Germany choosing to absent itself from the civilized world until it
was shelled to pieces.
Early in 1948, the United States Government
acquired an "option on the German-Austrian translation and publication
rights" of *Bend Sinister* (Selected Letters, p.80). It was meant to
supplement an occupation re-education program, and though VN did not believe
Germans could be re-educated, he gave his permission. The condition,
however, was that he be given a chance to have a look at the translation.
In August, 1948 the U.S.Government did submit a manuscript, and VN was
absolutely horrified by what he saw. He refused to go on reading it, let
alone to revise it. The shock even made him suggest that the U.S.
Government ask Thomas Mann, one of the writers he strongly disliked, if he
didn't know some other German translator who would be up to the task. To
be sure, nothing came of the plan. (That appalling manuscript with VN's
notes in the margin which I would very much like to see appears to be
lost.) German readers thus did not get a chance to discover (or
rediscover) Nabokov before everybody else did.
Rowohlt (i.e., its then proprietor and director, Heinrich-Maria
Ledig-Rowohlt, 1908-1992) was one of the international publishers who
acquired the *Lolita* rights before (!) it became a bestseller in the
United States. He remained a personal friend of the Nabokovs to the very
end, spending the last years of his life not far away on the shores of
Lake Geneva. All of Nabokov's books that have been translated into German
have been published by Rowohlt, with the exception of the *Lectures* which
Ledig-Rowohlt let go to Fischer Verlag. (Although Ledig-Rowohlt loved
literature and personally translated the poetry in the German *Lolita* ,
he cared little for criticism. Eventually the,*Lectures* will also be
incorporated into the Collected Edition.) Rowohlt has kept all of
Nabokov's novels available throughout the decades, most of them in a
hardcover as well as in a pocketbook edition. You still can buy the first
and only printing of the clothbound 1960 *Das wahre Leben des Sebastian
Rowohlt's continued activities notwithstanding, there was a long
lull. Germany was particularly hard hit by the spirit of cultural
revolution that came out of the student rebellion of 1968. There was a
widespread aversion to all books considered bourgeois. One of the
movement's influential manifestoes pronounced all literature dead and
allowed it to continue only if it propagated the future socialist state.
Authors like Nabokov were considered vieux jeu at best -- or
representatives of a despicable outdated culture that everybody was called
upon to combat. Recovery from that collective fit was slow. It is probably
because of that slump in interest that there is still hardly any Nabokov
scholarship to speak of in Germany. The only books on Nabokov in German
are Donald E. Morton's brief monograph and Zinaida Shakhovskoy's vengeful
recollections. (But now Rowohlt is going to have Brian Boyd's biography
translated, though that will take several years.) To be sure, there are a
few Ph. D. theses, and they have been published as books: Herbert Grabes'
*Erfundene Biographien* (1975), Juergen Bodenstein's *The Excitement of
Verbal Adventure* (1977), Renate Hof's *Das Spiel des unreliable narrator:
Aspekte unglaubwuerdigen Erzaehlens im Werk von Vladimir Nabokov* (1982),
Maria-Regina Kecht's *Das Groteske im Prosawerk von Vladimir Nabokov*
(1983), Christopher Huellen's *Der Tod im Werk Vladimir Nabokovs: Terra
Incognita* (1990). Once in a while a course on some aspect of Nabokov's
oeuvre is held at a Slavic Department somewhere, for instance by Annelore
Engel-Braunschmidt in Hamburg (who also translated *The Gift* for the
Rowohlt edition and contributed most of the commentary) -- but there is
not a single professor in the three German-speaking countries who has come
forth with a scholarly work on Nabokov and who would come to mind as
a Nabokov authority. Not even Nabokov's fifteen years in Berlin which
could still be researched have prompted any interest in academe. As a
matter of fact, there barely has been any German research on Russian
emigres in Berlin, although around 1923 their colony exceeded 300.000.
Culturally, Berlin at that time probably was the liveliest of "Russian"
cities. The only book on that era is a copious and colorful 600 page
reader compiled by Fritz Mierau (*Russen in Berlin 1918-1933*, Leipzig
1987). As it appeared in Eastern Germany where Nabokov remained taboo to
the very end, he is conspicuously absent from it, except for nine lines in
Mierau's preface. Though they merely state the innocent fact that Nabokov
wrote his first novels in Berlin, even mentioning his name at the time
probably demanded some courage. There is only one German library that has
made any attempt at systematically collecting books by and about Nabokov:
the University Library in Constance where it happened at the instigation
of Renate Lachmann, Professor of Slavic Literatures, who is currently
realizing a research project on fantasy literature that will include
Nabokov. Quite a bit has accumulated at the wonderfully plentiful Kennedy
Institute in Berlin, but their holdings are strictly limited to the
American Nabokov, to the point that they have bought only Brian Boyd's
second volume, and in 1991 they seem to have lost interest altogether (or
perhaps they ran out of funds). If you do find a book or journal at some
other library it usually happened to get there by accident. This then was
the situation we were faced with in 1988. There was a minor but persistent
interest in Nabokov on the part of the reading public. Book reviewers --
usually the same ones -- had for the most part acknowledged occasional new
titles briefly and politely and without much enthusiasm. Most of Nabokov's
books had been translated at one point or the other, and they were still
in print. Some had not, for no special reason except for the general lull
-- translators not getting their manuscripts ready and nobody urging them,
copyright negotiations not being concluded and the like. Fifteen different
translators had been at work in this case, and some of the old
translations obviously were in a sorry state.
Rowohlt and I decided the time had come for a Nabokov revival. I
drew up several plans for a Collected Works, very unrealistically hoping
to be able to complete everything until 1995. One of them was adopted by
Rowohlt and submitted to Vera Nabokov and Nikki Smith who approved of the
project. The first three volumes came out in the fall of 1989: (a)
*Lolita* (volume 8) in a revised translation and with 120 pages of
commentary mostly in the form of notes, (b) two volumes (no. 13 and 14) of
all of Nabokov's stories in chronological order. Included were *The
Enchanter* and the early ones for which this was a world premiere in book
form; these two volumes had no commentary but a complete bibliography at
the end. The most recent title to be published was a new translation of
*Pnin* (vol.9) with an appendix of 60 pages (August 1994).
These were and are our aims: (1) We wanted to fill the gaps that
had remained for one reason or the other. So far we have produced German
versions of all the untranslated short stories (some 43 out of 66),
*Gogol*, *Strong Opinions* and *Dar/The Gift*. Next year we still hope to
get the Nabokov-Wilson letters ready, in Simon Karlinsky's new updated
edition. A volume with all plays plus the *Lolita* screenplay (none of
which have been translated so far) is in preparation and may be out by
1996. As for the poetry, we still are undecided, for obvious reasons. (2)
We wanted to offer the German-speaking reader a reliable text. That meant
that some of the old translations had to be thoroughly reworked (notably
*Lolita* and *The Defense*) and two had to be discarded altogether, as
being beyond repair (*King, Queen, Knave* and *Pnin*). One of the
unexpected problems that has taken much of my time and slowed the whole
procedure considerably was that some of the new translations commissioned
by Rowohlt turned out to be failures and needed at least as much repair as
the worst of the old ones. (I have ceased to be diplomatic about this
point, spending my evenings and weekends and holidays struggling with
howlers of all varieties. On the other hand, I know only too well that
translating is a very approximative business and that absolutely nobody is
exempt from committing all kinds of blunders.) (3) Since the edition makes
no pretension of being "wissenschaftlich" but aims to please the general
reader we wanted to supply additional material that might facilitate his
understanding, and that meant drawing on the international Nabokov
research. All the works have "Afterword"s by the editor detailing their
genesis while refraining from interpretation. Where necessary they have
notes. These sometimes do little more than list the discrepancies between
the Russian original and the English version (or vice versa) which we had
compared word by word for our purposes. In other cases -- no volume is
exactly like the others -- they give copious but matter-of-fact
explications. The volume with most annotations so far has been *The Gift*,
with an apparatus of about 200 pages.
Some reviewers have found the commentary too ample. It is a
problem that I am afraid cannot be avoided. The reader will find
superfluous whatever he knows already or what he does not care to know,
but every reader knows and wants to know something else. A work of
reference cannot be custom-tailored for a particular user's needs. Still
the appendices are not obtrusive in any way. They are hidden at the back
of the volumes, with no cross-references in the text proper, and nobody is
forced to heed them. Publishing ventures of this scope and kind have
become very rare in this country. Rowohlt's Nabokov set has in general
received a warm welcome by reviewers and readers. A new generation of
critics has emerged, with very perceptive and intelligent readers among
them (pars pro toto I mention Gustav Seibt's essay on *Die Gabe* in the
*Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung*, September 15, 1993). There turned out to
be highly knowledgeable Nabokov readers of long standing who keep sending
us queries, complaints and suggestions. The initial printing is four to
six thousand copies. Some of the volumes already have had to be reprinted.
The paperback editions are gradually employing the new text, though mostly
without the appendices. So I think it is not venting personal vanity but
stating an objective fact if I say that during the five years since it
began the Rowohlt edition has sort of accomplished the Nabokov revival in
the German-speaking countries which we had been hoping for at the outset.
What follows is the plan of the edition, with the publication dates
attached. 1 *Maschenka*, *Koenig Dame Bube* (1991) 2 *Lushins
Verteidigung*, *Der Spaeher*, *Die Mutprobe* (1992) 3 *Gelaechter im
Dunkel*, *Verzweiflung* 4 *Einladung zur Enthauptung* (1990) 5 *Die Gabe*
(1993) 6 *Das wahre Leben des Sebastian Knight* 7 *Das Bastardzeichen*
(1990) 8 *Lolita* (1989) 9 *Pnin* (1994) 10 *Fahles Feuer* 11 *Ada* 12
*Durchsichtige Dinge*, *Sieh doch die Harlekine!* 13 *Erzaehlungen
1921--1934* (1989) 14 *Erzaehlungen 1935--1951* (1989) 15 *Dramatische
Texte*, *Lolita*-Drehbuch 16 *Nikolaj Gogol* (1990) 17 *Vorlesungen ueber
russische Literatur* 18 *Vorlesungen ueber europaeische Literatur* 19
*Vorlesungen ueber Don Quijote* 20 *Deutliche Worte* (1993) 21
(Uncollected interviews and essays)? 22 *Erinnerung, sprich* (1991) 23
*Lieber Bunny, lieber Volodya* (1995?) 24 (Letters)? [25 (Pushkin Eugene


At this point it may be appropriate to add a few words about myself. I was
born in Berlin in 1934 where I lived during the pre-war, war and post-war
period. One of the first breaks I got was when in 1950 I received an AFS
scholarship to spend a year at a high school in the United States, with a
wonderful family in Evanston, Illinois. Back in Berlin, I eventually began
to study German and English literature at the Free University, then got a
fellowship to do graduate work at Northwestern where I had the great
pleasure to study with Dick Ellmann and to become friends with him. After
an interlude as a language tutor in France and Geneva, I joined the weekly
DIE ZEIT in 1959 and have been a writer on its staff ever since, in the
last fifteen years specializing in science journalism and writing a
handful of books on the side, one of them a slashing farewell to
psychoanalysis which Vera Nabokov read and liked and found as funny as --
among other things -- it was meant to be.
And this is how my Nabokov connection came about. As a student and
tutor in Geneva, one bright day I happened to peruse the *Time* magazine
review of *Lolita* and immediately decided that this was an author I would
care to read. I even sat down and wrote a letter to Rowohlt -- where I
didn't know a soul -- asking whether they would not consider buying the
German language rights. They answered they had already bought them. One of
my first journalistic assignments was to review the German *Lolita* in
1959. VN saw that youthful article and seems to have liked it for some
reason (perhaps he had been expecting only the very worst from Germany),
for he suggested to Heinz Ledig-Rowohlt that he try the young fellow out
as a translator. So I was commissioned by Rowohlt to translate *The Real
Life of Sebastian Knight*, and though I had tremendous qualms at the time
and often wanted to give up and destroy the whole thing. I still like that
old translation, even if I am glad that now I will have a chance to submit
it to one of my pitiless revisions. Since then I have been one of
Nabokov's ardent promotors in Germany, if that's the word; there were
years when I thought I was more or less the only one. I translated about
ten of his books for Rowohlt, most of which were thoroughly checked by
Vera Nabokov from whom I learned what this author expected from his
translators (I have also translated texts by Bierce, Borges, Joyce,
Nathanael West and others). In 1962 I compiled the first VN bibliography,
with stern and constructive criticism from Vera Nabokov as well. Actually
it was only meant as a list Rowohlt could consult to get the dates and the
titles in their imprints right, and it was Heinz Ledig-Rowohlt who decided
to have it printed and distributed free of charge as a Christmas gift to
his friends. In some American publication I read that Nabokovians
unfortunately had to "put up with the Zimmer bibliography", presumably
till the happy day when Andrew Field's came along, and that was a remark I
resented. Now that Nabokov has become a classic and communication with
experts and institutions all over the world has become easy it is hard to
imagine the difficulties that a guy in Germany, young and penniless, had
to cope with at that time. German libraries, disrupted and severely
damaged during the war, were recovering only slowly. Interlibrary loan was
still in its infancy and handicapped by the fact that the war damages had
been to the catalogues as well. There were no xerox machines. The few
people I approached at American universities seemed to consider me plain
crazy, wasting my time on an author of pornography. The stout lady in
charge of the library at the Slavic Department in Hamburg where they
miraculously had a complete set of *Sovremennye zapiski* refused to climb
up to the shelf where it had been reposing for decades just to please the
whim of an intruder who of course was not allowed to go near their shelves
himself, and the director of the institute finally kicked me out for good
because he suspected I wanted to defile their library by what he strangely
considered my "commercial" purposes. I knew very well that the thing was
incomplete and hoped that one day somebody would come along to do the job
professionally, as Michael Juliar has, though in 1962 it was by no means
clear that this would ever happen. But considering the circumstances I had
amassed quite a collection of data for the first time, most of them
correct. In 1987, Michael Naumann, since 1986 Rowohlt's new director who
was a former colleague at DIE ZEIT and a personal friend of mine had the
idea of a high quality Nabokov "Werkausgabe" and persuaded the people in
charge of the company's funds to finance it even though they could not
expect it to become a commercial success. (As a matter of fact it has not
been doing so badly.) He approached me to ask whether I would do it, and I
accepted -- though I knew it would be a load that for many years would
require every minute I could spare from my job at DIE ZEIT and would
prevent me from ever writing a book of my own again.
My biggest personal problem as a Nabokov editor is that I have no
Russian, though I have become quite adept at finding any particular
sentence in the Russian versions; for that reason I have to enlist expert
help and advice all the time, and Rowohlt is supporting me in this.
Editing the *Gesammelte Werke* now is a kind of hobby which will keep me
busy to the very end. The demanding four last novels I will not be able to
tackle before my retirement in 1999. I expect there will be a fax machine
at my disposal in hell so I can keep on sending instructions on which
commas ought and which ought not to be italicized to Rowohlt's production
department. Revising doubtful translations will be an appropriate
occupation in that place. To end on a cheerful note, I want to express my
deepfelt gratitude to various personal computers without which the job
would have taken at least twice as long. They never complained!