Vladimir Nabokov hated it when people read his books allegorically, but the author is dead and so is Nabokov. He wasn't dead yet when Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove dropped in 1964, though; he was 65, a year older than the 20th century. His masterpiece, Pale Fire, was only 2. He probably saw Strangelove. I beg my withholding God to tell me if he liked it.
I couldn't stop thinking about Pale Fire when I rewatched Strangelove the other day. In addition to their nearly simultaneous releases, the two works share an arch vibe, a music-hall quality, a set of absurd character names. Both walk the narrow beam of satire, falling neither into realism nor into edginess for its own sake, although both can be said to go there, edginess-wise, in that the president in Dr. Strangelove is a guy called Merkin Muffley, and the hero of Pale Fire is a gay man as rendered – with total and sometimes devastating commitment to the bit – by a midcentury homophobe.
For those unfamiliar, Dr. Strangelove is a comedy about nuclear war. It's also a near-thriller, taut and unnerving, about a renegade general who orders the bombing of the USSR, as well as the efforts of the American and Soviet governments to defuse the traps he's put in place to prevent them from stopping him. Peter Sellers plays multiple parts in it, because Kubrick had recently done an adaptation Nabokov's Lolita (zeitgeist!) in which Sellers did the same thing to general acclaim.
Dr. Strangelove is also a film about politeness; two of Sellers' characters (Muffley and an aristocratic RAF captain, Mandrake) explore the respective American and English ideals of the polite, pushed to caricature as a kind of microscopic magnification. Kubrick lets both characters' absurdity breathe like a fine wine, but he's also serious about showing them as skilled social actors trying to talk their way through an extended hostage situation; when the two Sellerses finally manage to talk and exchange vital information, it's one of the film's few hopeful moments.
Pale Fire is Nabokov's most daring and yet most precisely machined novel, about a gay academic, Charles Kinbote, who believes that he's the deposed king ("Charles the Beloved") of a land called Zembla. Kinbote structures his autobiography around an epic poem by his neighbor (and crush), John Shade, presenting it as a footnoted commentary which explains why the poem is really about his escape from his lost kingdom. It's not, of course – it's a meditation on the death of Shade's daughter, and on his longing to believe in a life after death – and it's worth mentioning that Pale Fire is also not about the Cold War in the exact sense that Dr. Strangelove is. I want to talk about the parallel without making that claim. When Nabokov wants to write about a historical event, he writes about it openly. Bend Sinister, for example, is a black comedy about the rise of fascism. It's incredible, and you should read it. It's also got something in common with both Dr. Strangelove and Pale Fire: a deep engagement with the literary tradition of fictitious countries, from the Laputa of Gulliver's Travels (a place name Kubrick lifts directly for Dr. Strangelove) to the Ruritania of The Prisoner of Zenda.
Kimbote's Zembla is a nod to Zenda, but it's also a reference to Novaya Zemlya, the archipelago in the high Russian Arctic. Novaya Zemlya was a nuclear test site from 1955 to 1990. It was the 1961 test site of the Tsar Bomba, the largest and most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated. I don't know whether Nabokov knew that, but I also don't think these things – the novel's obsession with fire, the strikingly nuclear Shakespearean reference to the moon stealing its fire from the sun – are coincidences. They're part of the zeitgeist: what preoccupies people, what seems funny, what hits it big. Peter Sellars later played his multiple roles in a comedy version of The Prisoner of Zenda; that's the zeitgeist too. Nuclear bombs, pale fires, baroque fantasy countries, absurd names – these things were in the early sixties' leaden, irradiated air.
The Cold War was conducted largely in the form of fantasy and fiction. There were hypothetical weapons, science-fictional endings, the contemplation of dizzying lengths of time. The idea was that these bombs could instantly deliver us into any number of inconceivable futures. Given the high drama of all that, everyone in Dr. Strangelove has a surprisingly boring idea of what the future will hold. We're all going to live in underground towns with ten women for every man. No, the refractory period is a Communist plot. They're all solipsists, all Kinbotes in essence: they can't imagine anything beyond their own anxiety and horniness. Other people don't even exist, much less other nations. Russia's fake, but Laputa is real.
I've been reading Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, a cultural history of Victorian ideas about the Artic. Spufford is particularly good on the Victorian conceit that the Arctic is the brain of the world, that its use as a metaphor for extreme mental states was so common that the English began to see it as a mental state in itself. Both Dr. Strangelove and Pale Fire invoke the Arctic heavily – Dr. Strangelove in its endless scenes of a bomber flying over snow-drenched Northern mountains that might well be Novaya Zemlya, Pale Fire in Novaya Zemlya itself. Both of them are also stories about extreme mental states: about madness, in the literary and Victorian sense. The effect, like that invoked by Ruritania and Laputa, is distinctly pre-20th-century. I don't think any of this is coincidence, either. Maybe you can't imagine the end of the world except by imagining worlds that have already ended.