Kerouac, Nabokov, and Alma Mahler walk into a bar . . .

Yr. humble correspondent had a good chuckle over the following passage in Louis Menand’s tour of On the Road, “Drive, He Wrote,” in the New Yorker:

“The Beat Movement had a male muse. This was, of course, Neal Cassady, the protagonist of both ‘On the Road,’ where he is Dean Moriarty, and ‘Howl.’ . . . Cassady also figures in several of Kerouac’s other books . . . and his iconic presence went beyond the Beats. He became a friend of Ken Kesey, and he was the driver on the Merry Pranksters’ famous bus trip, the subject of Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.’ The Grateful Dead wrote a song about him. He is the Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, of postwar American culture.”

If you’d like to know why exactly that is so funny, you must read Alma Mahler-Werfel’s Diaries, 1898–1902. Now, Alma might never have juggled sledgehammers—as Cassady is described as doing in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—but it’s a pretty good bet that, if placed in proximity to the requisite hardware, she’d have found a way.

In “Drive, He Wrote,” Menand also says:

“’Lolita’ is in the canon; ‘On the Road’ is somewhat sub-canonical—also a tour de force, like Nabokov’s book, but considered more a literary phenomenon than a work of literature. On the other hand, it has had an equivalent influence. Nabokov showed writers how to squeeze a morality tale inside a Fabergé egg; Kerouac showed how to stretch a canvas across an entire continent.”

If you are interested in this notion of Nabokov as moralist, please have a look at Leland de la Durantaye‘s new Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov, which may well become the definitive word on the subject. Clarence Brown says of de la Durantaye’s book:

“Hitler’s mass murderer, Eichmann, when awaiting trial in Jerusalem, read Nabokov’s Lolita. He pronounced it an immoral book. Readers less famous but equally perceptive have agreed. The editor of the Scottish Sunday Express found Lolita, ‘the filthiest book I have ever read.’ The author of Style is Matter does not, of course, spend much time refuting the absurdity of these views. His splendidly insightful, readable book deals not only with the moral nature of Nabokov’s novels but also with the ethical dimension of great fiction, and of all great art. Readers need not be troubled by the expectation of seeing what I suppose will be their own point of view argued, however ably, for this book is a constantly surprising and delightful work of criticism.”

Kerouac, Nabokov, and Alma Mahler walk into a bar . . .