The Conversion

Joseph Olshan
Arcadia Books (paperback, 288 p.)

Reviewed by Megan Agnew

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 News From Nowhere, Liverpool's radical and community bookshop.

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