Wednesday, September 04, 2013


HALF A CENTURY ago or more I attended Santa Rosa Junior College for a couple of semesters, where my favorite teacher was undoubtedly Sidney Meller, a mainstay of the English department. I took at least two courses from him, one on The Modern Novel, the other on The American Novel. He was a patient, gentle man, widely read, quietly enthusiastic; the kind of teacher who inspired a young man to read, to contemplate, perhaps to teach in his turn.

He was also a novelist, though he never referred to his own work in class — neither to the novels themselves, nor to his experience as a novelist, whether as writer, grant-winner, negotiator with agents, editors, or publishers. In teaching the novel he dealt with the primary sources — Joyce, James, Conrad, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald — and with E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, which I haven't read since and had utterly forgotten, but which I now realize, having read a summary of the work online, has influenced me more than I ever knew:
Most importantly, Forster makes clear that this discussion will not be concerned with historical matters, such as chronology, periodization, or development of the novel. He makes clear that "time, all the way through, is to be our enemy." Rather, he wishes to imagine the world's great novelists from throughout history sitting side by side in a circle, in "a sort of British Museum reading room - all writing their novels simultaneously."
Years after studying with Meller, and after his lamented early death (1960, heart attack), I read his second novel, Home is Here, and I recalled it a few months ago while browsing the San Francisco bookshop The Green Arcade, whose owner mentioned an interest in republishing out-of-print books relating to that city.

I recall Home is Here as a tender and lyrical account of an Italian immigrant family on Telegraph Hill. I could be entirely wrong: I haven't read it since the late 1950s, I'm pretty sure, decades before forming the habit of entering the date read on the last page of a book. (I just took my copy down from the shelf, and found in it two letters from Meller, dated 1956.) I intend to re-read it soon, but that's not what I'm at today: today I want to report on his earlier novel, Roots in the Sky (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938).

An ambitious novel, Roots in the Sky follows the fortune of an orthodox Jewish family in an unnamed west coast city, obviously San Francisco. It was written in the late 1930s, I think, and traces the family of Elchanan and Chana Drobnen from about 1900 — dates are I think deliberately unspecified in the novel — well into the Depression years.

Elchanan and Chana Drobnen, I write; but throughout the book they are Rabbi Drobnen and the Rebitzen — another way of distancing the reader, of presenting these two otherwise strongly delineated characters as Type as well as individual. There's no mistaking this intent in a novel whose opening paragraph reads
Now these are the children born to Elchanan Drobnen, the scholar, and Chana, his wife.
— virtually the last time their given names are mentioned.

The children are Miriam, David, Laib, Esther, Aba, and Irving. Miriam is born in the family Polish-Russian inn, but David, the result of "an unpleasant incident," was born after that incident forced a hasty emigration to America. There the tension begins, between a traditional orthodox culture and the distractions and temptations of the new country. Miriam quickly substitutes "Leo" for "Laib," and directs the midwife to record Esther's name as "Estelle," and finally finds "Irving" a suitable substitute for Yitzchak.

Through all this the Rebitzen protests, complains, then submits, and the Rabbi studies and prays: this will is their pattern. The children go to school and to shul; the Rebitzen maintains her household, her double kitchen artillery (meat and milk), and her traditions; the Rabbi prays and studies.

The six children are remarkably different from their parents and from one another, drifting under influences of friends and exploiters. Politics, boxing, retail sales, investments, even fruit-picking evolve as various employments. World War I, the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the Crash and the Great Depression all intrude on the family. Running subplots involve various members of the Rabbi's shul: the baker, the butcher, a real estate salesman; hyper-Orthodox, backsliders, do-nothings and schemers.

I know nothing about Jewish cultural traditions; there were no Jewish kids in my (country) grammar-school or, as far as I knew, at high school; I went away to a Christian college, and I don't think I knew a Jew personally until I was studying with Meller at Junior College in my early twenties. I find now, nearly sixty years later, that my slowly evolved interest in the tension between closed cultures and the greater world they inescapably confront, these days, extends even to this arcane and unfamiliar context, and I must say reading Roots in the Sky has suggested explanations for motivations and responses that have eluded me, sometimes even mystified me, over the years.

The book has a great deal of technical interest, too. It shows its author's reading, from Gertrude Stein's Three Lives to Wolfe, Faulkner, and Joyce; and it demonstrates his fascination with narrative rhythm, point of view, pattern, and — above — character.

Much about Roots in the Sky will strike a contemporary reader as dated. It's long, cool, occasionally remote; its vernacular is old hat; detailed political references — the NEA, for example — are ancient history. But I think the book is relevant now, when greed trumps community, subcultural purity is threatened, and many aspects of what we've come to think of as "American values" are showing their dark sides.

I find virtually nothing about Sidney Meller on the Internet, and of his two novels only the Kirkus reviews. I can't argue with the flaws Kirkus finds in Roots in the Sky; it's too good a book, in both senses of the word "good," to have been a commercial success. But I'm glad I read it, and I think it may have made me a better person, a little more like its author, though far short of his patience and, probably, tolerance.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

Forster's Aspects of the Novel is probably the best book about understanding the mechanics and meaning of fiction that has ever been written.

It's a great sadness that Forster was so discouraged by the impossibility of publishing Maurice during his lifetime, that he gave up writing fiction entirely. Even on the strength of the work he did publish, he certainly should have been honored with a Nobel Prize. Were Pearl Buck and Sinclair Lewis really better?