Arcadia Books (paperback, 288 p.)
Compelling and powerfully written, Joseph Olshan’s
The Conversion tells the story of young Jewish-American Russell Todaro
and the primary struggles he faces in his search for meaning and fulfilment.
Swept along by plot machinations, Todaro is uneasily placed at the centre
of the surprising events which fate deals him.
Moving to Paris to reassess his life and career, Todaro finds companionship
with an older man – the famous American poet Edward Cannon –
who harbours an unrequited love for Todaro. One evening intruders burst
into their hotel room and – not finding what they apparently expect
– leave empty handed. Shaken by the occurrence, Cannon dies in his
sleep that same night. Todaro, dazed and confused by the shocking events,
is offered sanctuary at the Tuscan home of Italian writer Marina Vezzoli
and her writer husband, Stefano, a recluse. The Villa Guidi is steeped
in history and has its own tale of conversion – a Jewish family
who hid from their persecutors in the cellars there and later adopted
a Christian faith. It is while he recuperates at the villa amid this historic
backdrop that Todaro fully realises his helplessness and passivity at
the hands of others. Indeed, even the seemingly generous invitation from
Vezzoli reveals itself to be a ploy with selfish intent: an attempt to
get her husband’s work translated by Todaro for a wider audience.
Having drawn upon his childhood memories of a drowning accident for his
only novel, Todaro struggles with inspiration for material for a second
work. Continually manipulated by those around him, he is even subjected
to Cannon’s influence from beyond the grave through the poet’s
unfinished manuscript and the entries he reads concerning their relationship.
Frustrated by the lack of outlet for his anger, Todaro is faced with further
struggle over Cannon’s memoirs, which the poet deemed unsuitable
for publication but which American publicists are keen to acquire. Should
he honour the dead man’s wishes or release the papers and subject
his own private and fragile life to public scrutiny? Todaro loses himself
in numerous amorous but ultimately unfulfilling gay relationships; his
ability, Cannon observes in his memoirs, marred by his inability to ignore
desire and passion: ‘(Todaro would) give his life over to love.
That’s why he’ll never write anything good’. Stifled
by such relationships, Todaro must relinquish these unhelpful desires
and go through his own conversion to discover his true abilities and goals.
Todaro’s search for passion and pure, hedonistic experience leads
him on a continental pilgrimage which eventually leads to his salvation
and clarity of vision.
Olshan’s masterful grasp of his medium allows for the exploration
of the deep passions and complexities that make up human relationships.
Both the subtleties and profundities from which life is made are picked
out and laid bare in a novel of self-discovery and enlightenment –
and the struggles which follow. Threads of meaning are highlighted, but
then left to fade (we never discover more about the intrusion which leads
to Cannon’s death, for instance). In this way, Olshan reflects the
uncontrollable and often dissatisfying nature of life. The novel follows
a search for significance amid a modernist tendency to self-deprecate
and displace, often unsettling the reader, but always pushing forward
and provoking questions about our own place in the world. In The Conversion,
Olshan has created a thoroughly absorbing study of the imperfections of
human nature and the influence of art upon the human condition.
The Conversion is available for £11.99 from , Liverpool's radical and community bookshop.