Leafing thru an old copy of ”The Gift” to check marginalia and sentences I’d underlined before throwing it away, for its replacement had just reached me, I was struck by wonder once again after finding among the highlighted lines V.Nabokov’s concise comment on his view of Tamerlane’s lust for power, vanity and the price paid for his conquests: “Gradually, as a result of all these raids on the past of Russian thought, he developed a new yearning for Russia (…)And while piling up knowledge, while extracting his finished creation out of this mountain, he remembered something else: a pile of stones on an Asian pass; warriors going on campaign each placed a stone there; on the way back each took a stone from the pile; that which was left represented forever the number of those fallen in battle. Thus in a pile of stones Tamerlane foresaw a monument.”(The Gift, Penguin ed.1981,p.188)
He will return to Tamerlane at least once again in “Pale Fire”, when C. Kinbote offers one of John Shade’s posthumous poems (note to line 347):
“And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.”
And yet, through the searing irony about Tamerlane’s monument, what first held my attention was the reference to a future memento associated to Fyodor’s growing wisdom - and to the (physical) body of his work after “raiding on the past of Russian thought,” “piling up knowledge” and “extracting his finished creation out of this mountain.” But wait…by pulling his novel out from the “pile of stones” it no longer belongs to any future monument. Would Fyodor have been overtaken by modesty or self-doubt at some point in time? Was he a raider like Tamerlane or a surviving warrior with no other fame?
This quandary reminded me of one of VN’s comments in the foreword of “Despair” (in it there’s the foppish Hermann forever condemned to despair*, a young and relatively innocent author and himself, thirty years later, relishing his present conquest over a past accomplishment)**. Beth Sweeney’s article “Had I Come Before Myself”: Illegitimate Judgments of Lolita and Despair, elucidates this situation: “Nabokov adds yet another chiasmus when he imagines his younger self, in turn, approving the current revision: “I also know how pleased and excited I would have been in 1935 had I been able to foreread this 1965 version”[…] Nabokov speculates about chronologically preceding himself in time. In this case, too, the conceptual blending produces an impossible scene of self-judgment (since the younger Nabokov could not have read the later version) which nevertheless asserts a specific verdict (since the older Nabokov claims to know how the younger would have responded).” Susan Elizabeth SWEENEY: http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/?id=1038.
* - Hermann like Tamerlane and unlike Humbert is condemned to a permanent and uninterrupted stay in Hell: “Hermann and Humbert are alike only in the sense that two dragons painted by the same artist at different periods of his life resemble each other. Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.” (Despair, Foreword)
**- [ cf.also, in “The Gift”: “The real writer should ignore all readers but one, that of the future, who in his turn is merely the author reflected in time (Koncheyev to Fyodor) p.309/10]