Ultima Thule by Vladimir Nabokov, 1942
The magic trick:
Using storytelling layers to create a cycle of metaphysical riddles
As much as I love short stories, there are times when I hit the reading wall. Not often. It’s only happened three of four times over the last few years. But there have been these brief periods where the idea of sitting down and investing a half hour in a short story feels like a chore. I’ve been in one of those ruts lately again, kind of just going through the motions, reading a few stories with little interest.
And then I read “Ultima Thule.”
Quite simply, this is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.
To be honest, though, it sat on the table for about a week, holding up my reading list. I started it twice and stopped both times after about five pages. The writing is so rich and so dense, the story demands attention I didn’t have to give for awhile.
The third time I locked in and really focused on every sentence, and everything clicked. It’s not light reading. But, with so much Nabokov, what you put in as a reader gets paid back tenfold.
There are layers and layers. Stories about stories – all of it addressed to a ghost. It recalls Borges in the way the story curls in around itself. Even that description – the circular series of questions and answers – is a reference to the conversation at the end of the story.
Everything in the story is question. But maybe somewhere in those questions lies the answer.
It’s storytelling as a metaphysical logic puzzle, and I loved it.
And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.
“I said, ‘cold,’ as they say in the game, when one must find a hidden object. If you are looking under a chair or under the shadow of a chair, and the object cannot be in that place, because it happens to be somewhere else, then the question of there existing a chair or its shadow has nothing whatever to do with the game. To say that perhaps the chair exists but the object is not there is the same as saying that perhaps the object is the there but the chair does not exist, which means that you end up again in the circle so dear to human thought.”
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