If one can inherit a writing style, I probably got mine from my grandfather, Leo Felsen, who was the most serious and unserious person I’ve ever known.
He was a Holocaust refugee who poured his survivor’s guilt into his work as a theoretical physicist, specializing in complex waves. He labored incessantly, publishing several books and hundreds of academic papers, some of which helped pave the way for cellular and microwave technology. But he was also a world-class goofball, who made an art out of self-deprecation. On his 80th birthday, my family threw him a small party. He was suffering from both muscular dystrophy and prostate cancer, and he arrived at our home with a handmade sign around his neck that read, “My Golden Years Are Pyrite.” On his head was a party hat that he had fashioned out of one of his adult diapers.
When he wasn’t at work on one of his interminable mathematical formulas, he loved reading, writing, and listening to rhyming verse, including hip-hop, and he even occasionally engaged me in freestyle rap battles. The point of these battles was to wittily praise oneself and snappily bash the other, and in a way, our entire relationship was like this. Until he died, in 2005, he was my most enthusiastic supporter and my nastiest critic. One day, it was “I’m proud of you, Sam. You’re really becoming a writer. Let me buy you a Boston Creme donut.” The next, it was “I’m paying for your college. You call this crap an essay?”
Speaking of the college he paid for — by the way, my grandfather, like the Holocaust-scarred grandfather in my debut novel, Green, never spent a penny on himself — it was during my junior year there that he gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever received.
I’d had my heart broken by my girlfriend, and was in a prolonged funk. My grandfather knew something about funks. His wife, Sima, a fellow refugee from Nazi Germany, was so scarred by her past that she spent much of her life in a depression, and ended up committing suicide. Sima died before I was born and my grandfather never once spoke her name to me. But I knew he was thinking of Sima’s funk, and of his own lifelong battle with heartache (he never remarried), when he shared the secret of his own resilience:
Whenever you may feel depressed,
Or of a dire mood possessed,
Instead of muttering curses,
Try some humor, phrased in verses.
I didn’t exactly take his advice; I certainly didn’t begin scribbling a humorous ditty. Most likely, I chuckled at the “muttering curses” line, thanked him, and then went back to my dorm room, where I obsessed over my ex, and muttered curses into my pillow all night long.
But that poem stirred something of a sea change in me as a thinker, and eventually, as a writer. It’s what got me to start taking humor seriously — to view it as an essential stay against darkness. My grandfather had every reason to stop living: his sister was murdered by Nazis, he was ripped out of the country he dearly loved, his wife left him in the worst way imaginable, his body was ravaged for decades by muscle-eating disease. But he pressed on. I used to think it was the big, important scientific work that kept him going. Now, I think it’s just as likely that it was the diaper on his head.
In one of his last poems, my grandfather wrote, “I am constantly amazed by the ways a wave behaves.”
My favorite books are those that behave like waves — that modulate, in the words of Philip Roth, from “sheer playfulness” to “dead seriousness.” And if my grandfather were alive today, I hope he’d read Green, that it would give him both pause and delight, and that the characters — especially the one loosely based on him — would make him laugh.
Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel, Green, was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, an Amazon “Best Book of the Month,” one of Barnes and Noble’s “Six Debuts to Watch for in 2018,” and one of The New Yorker’s “Novels We Loved in 2018.” His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere. He was the chief blogger on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.