An interview with Gábor T. Szántó about his new book Threesome, a novel of missing tradition, and the reconciliation of freedom and the modern way of life.
“A master, a student and a woman are trying to extricate themselves from the dead-end situations of their life in typical present-day Budapest scenes”, we read on the blurb of your new novel Threesome. Let me start with the master, who was originally a bocher in the Yeshivah of Satmar, which is the crème de la crème even within orthodoxy. In this novel, he is the one who represents tradition; however, since Hungarian Jewry had tragically lost their roots with the Holocaust, they have the choice of a variety of traditions to reach back to. The second and third generations after the Holocaust often had to discover Judaism for themselves. For lack of a family recipe, they were not always sure where to look for a point of orientation: the strict prescriptions of Satmar Rebbes, or Neolog Judaism. So where does tradition reside nowadays?
This is exactly what Miklós, the young protagonist of my novel is searching for. Traditions were almost completely lost in the Holocaust and the subsequent forty years of Communist dictatorship. There are hardly any masters alive, yet Miklós manages to find Reb Shloyme, who was a Satmar Yeshivah student before the war, then emigrated to America after Auschwitz. Thus, he lived in two different worlds: besides traditional Jewish life, he also experienced the free spirit of America and knew the academic world from within. This ‘double vision’, Reb Shloyme’s traditional and at the same time modern world view, his empathy and spicy humour all add up to make a unique character. His main teaching is that one should not make exclusive choices: not Talmud or psychoanalysis, not tradition or modernity, not religion or eros, but both. One must live life in its fullness, together with its contradictions.
“This is a Bildungsroman, a romance and a novel of survival. The novel of missing tradition, and the reconciliation of freedom and the modern way of life”, you said about your book. Tradition and order are indeed lacking nowadays, and not only for those with a Jewish identity. However, you need determination and decisiveness if you want to recreate tradition – precisely those qualities that are in short supply for someone without traditions. What do they have to hold on to?
Perhaps a master – at least those who are fortunate enough to meet one. A master who can perhaps even make up for the lack of missing grandfathers for a certain time. Then, of course, one has to grow up and face the lack. However, in the novel, it is not only Miklós who is in need of a surrogate family, but his lover Sári and the master himself as well. All the three characters are substitutes for somebody else in each other’s life, even if they are not aware of this. Nowadays the whole country around us is struggling to reconcile tradition and order on the one hand and freedom and the modern way of life on the other – in this sense, the novel can reach out to a much wider audience beyond those who have an obvious interest in it. There are many people who tend to sweep under the carpet all their inner contradictions and doubts, who make radical choices, and ignore arguments that contradict their own point of view. This is the logic behind politics. Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have a master standing beside them, questioning them and teaching them how to make compromises.
I think sometimes Threesome involves more than just three characters. Besides the three people, depression, anxiety and relationship dependency seem to live a life of their own, the latter often becoming the main driving force for the narrator, the student. Is it possible to love well – or to have an authentic faith – when you are wounded?
The young people in the novel are characterized by a lack of identity, insecurity and problems typical to the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors. Undoubtedly, the fact that they are sufferers of the Holocaust syndrome taints their love and their attachment, just as it taints Reb Shloyme’s life. Miklós is slow to realize his own limits, if he realizes them at all. The reader witnesses his awakening step by step as Miklós probes the limits of his own personality. At times the reader is quicker to intimate what Miklós wants and what he doesn’t want than Miklós himself.
How does he relate to his girlfriend and to faith? The existence of man has been fatally split since the Garden of Eden. He experiences time as finite within the infinite, so he feels anxiety. He is looking for a companion and someone who supports him. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him”, as we read in Genesis before the momentous event in the Garden of Eden, before man became aware of his mortality. We are in need of the other person, just as we are in need of faith – or at least the faith that we don't need faith or the other person.
There is yet another character who sometimes steals the show: the act of creation, of writing itself. The narrator is often shown as being disturbed in his writing, or using writing as an excuse for not being able to do something. Yet we never see the completed work. The narrator has an ambivalent relation to time: on the one hand, he feels that whenever he is busy doing anything else (whenever he is ‘living’), it is at the expense of writing, yet he is often tormented by the slow passing of time. There is a clash between the lifestyle of two generations in the relationship of master and student, yet something else seems to be at stake here besides the fact that the life of the previous generation was less stressful. It seems that they related differently to – what exactly?
Threesome is in a way also about the artist whose master tries to make him face the fact that sometimes nothing happens in life, and one must learn to tolerate that. Moreover, one must write about that. The process of creative work is a process of averted crises. Especially if one must wait for a woman in the meantime, like Miklós in the novel. Sári’s disappearances structure the time that the student mostly spends with the master, or filling Sári’s place with another woman. I’m afraid the life of the previous generations was no more relaxed in that respect, as we can see in the case of the master himself. Yet the generation born before the Holocaust was undoubtedly part of something that was complete, at least from the perspective of those born after. The obsession with writing is related to the search for an identity, which also shows that for the protagonist, religion is not enough. Writing is a way of expressing the sense of lack.
In one of your poems you write about the missing chairs of predecessors and descendants around the table at the family dinner. Let me ask you about the missing chairs of the descendants. The male protagonist is afraid of the responsibility of having a child, and this fear is not exactly the fear from commitment that one reads about in the Cosmopolitan. The reasons are to be found elsewhere. Where?
In my novel, even though it is written in a light tone, the narrator is preoccupied with problems of existence and nonexistence, and the possibility of carrying on with life, which is perhaps not so surprising for someone who was born as a child of survivors and raised in a dictatorship.
Budapest, the city with the biggest Jewish population in Central-Eastern Europe, could be the centre of modern European Jewish literature. Why hasn’t this happened?
In the liberal age (the end of the 19th and the first third of the 20th century) the continuity of Jewish identity was broken in Hungary. The assimilationist pact of the age meant that Jews participated in Hungarian culture, especially in literature – the par excellence bearer of identity in a country that lost two thirds of its territory after World War I – as Hungarians rather than Jews. So Jews became Hungarians, and reflections on Jewishness were the exception rather than the rule in high culture. The Holocaust and Communist dictatorship were a double blow on Jewish identity, yet there were and there are significant writers who have reflected on their experiences related to Jewishness, even if these are experiences involving a sense of decline and emptiness. As for me, I am trying to show a positive example of Jewishness. However, being a Jewish writer in Hungarian culture means being relegated to the periphery. This is, on the one hand, because of the small size of the Hungarian nation and the guilt felt because of the Holocaust (that Hungary has still not come to terms with), and on the other, because of a misinterpretation of political correctness. By this I mean that people do not feel at ease with using the word ‘Jew’ and do not know how to relate to this phenomenon for lack of sufficient knowledge. The word ‘Jew’ casts a long shadow, as if one was speaking of rope in the house of a hanged man. Stuck between effervescent nationalism and universalism, bounded by the Hungarian language, and being a modern European Jewish writer, one struggles with a sense of spiritual homelessness, and must face the danger of incomprehension and isolation.
Tags: Gábor T. Szántó