The Conversion: Joseph Olshan
July 15, 2009
Joseph Olshan, in his eighth and most mature and impressive novel, The Conversion, introduces Russell Todaro, a sometimes writer and more often translator of Italian texts. A mid-thirties expatriate living in Paris, coupled with his partner, a well-known and much older American poet, Edward Cannon, Russell is still very much unmoored and drawn to an affair he enjoyed with Michel, a sexy and masculine Parisian, married and seemingly, more heterosexually inclined.
The novel opens with an impressive and mysterious life-altering event. After a chance daytime reencounter with the Italian writer Marina Vezzoli, whom Edward met a few years before, Russell and Edward are frighteningly disturbed later that same night when two men wearing ski masks break into their room and demand their money and passports. Edward, most affected by the event, is found dead from a heart attack the next morning.
In a few deft strokes, Olshan sets us on a compelling journey of unease that takes a dazed and grieving Russell to Tuscany, where he stays with Marina in the 15th-century Villa Guidi, with her older husband, Stefano, a reclusive writer of politically charged texts. It is here that Russell’s world takes a turn and he experiences the first of many conversions, or perhaps translations, of his own choices, actions, and inactions, to come to a point of knowing himself – to comprehend both past and future – specifically his real reasons for staying with Edward, the motives behind his wanting a life with Michel, and his particular unhealthy knack for falling for married men.
Olshan has channeled the best of Henry James (The Aspern Papers) and the poet of apprehension, Patricia Highsmith (The Tremor of Forgery), in this exquisite novel, which brings to mind Michael Cunningham’s introduction to a new translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice by Michael Henry Heim, when he wrote:
“All novels are translations, even in their original languages. When I started working with translators, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the problems that vexed them – questions of nuance, resonance, and tone, as well as the rhythm of the sentences themselves—were familiar to me. I’d worried over the same things when I wrote the book in the first place. It dawned on me, gradually, that I was a translator, too. I’d taken the raw material of the book in question and translated it into language.”
Olshan understands this perceptive note on the making and reinterpretation of art. In bringing this satisfying novel to life, Olshan’s The Conversion attains its solid success in the subgenre of Jamesian’s international novels.
St. Martin’s Press, ISBN 978-0312373917