I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her - after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred – (1) I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever - for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) – (2) and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and (3) I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, (4) ironically, horribly, lust would swell again - and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure – (5) all would be shattered.
(Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

There are five woulds in the example. For me, it is very difficult to grasp what the modal verb would means in these contexts. Would you explain what would means in these five cases?


Would here is employed as the simple past of will - there's no uncertainty involved. You could "foreshift" (I just made that up as the inverse of "backshift") this into the non-past:

There are moments ... when ... I will gather her ... tenderness will deepen, and I will lull and rock [her] ... lust will swell again ... and ... all will be shattered.

And all those woulds/wills could be replaced with simple pasts/non-pasts without materially changing the sense.

There were moments ... when ... I gathered her ... tenderness deepened, and I lulled and rocked [her] ... lust swelled again ... and ... all was shattered.

What would/will adds here is a deeper sense of this event inexorably following that event, and just a hint of unrelenting permanence -- not just that this is something that kept/keeps happening again and again but that it would/will keep happening again and again in the future.

This is, by the way, not Nabokov being "literary" and inventing a new dimension of expression -- it's an entirely ordinary, colloquial way of speaking:

It was a horrible period in our lives. I'd do this, she'd say that, I'd come back, she'd get mad, we'd fight for hours, we'd give up and go to bed, and the next day it would start all over again.

And it need not be negative - the same device can also express an unendingly paradisiacal life:

We'd roll out of bed at noon, we'd swim or sail or just bask in the sun all afternoon, we'd drift over to the bar at dusk, drink and dance deep into the small hours, collapse into bed, make mad passionate love -- week after week after week.


Would is a reference to what you did "at certain moments" (in the past).

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