By Joseph Olshan
St. Martin's, 278 pp., $24.95
Some years ago, when I was freelance travel writing, my partner and I shared an immensely pleasurable dinner with an Italian magazine editor and her husband. We were all staying at a posh resort in the British Virgin Islands, and on the beach that day had struck up one of those vacation friendships. Over a meal that lasted hours, we became mutually excited about possible transcontinental career opportunities, exchanging phone numbers and business cards. I eagerly told her about a stunning house in Anguilla that she had to experience and write about, providing for her all the necessary contact information via e-mail as soon as I got home. I had penetrated the supposedly closed culture and made an Italian friend and colleague, and so effortlessly!
In time I learned that the woman put my contacts to immediate use and arranged a wonderful free holiday for herself at the villa in Anguilla I'd recommended. Of course she never answered my e-mails, and I never heard from her again. The Henry James-like incident, though a trifle, left its mark on me.
In James's "international" novels, Americans abroad, full of Yankee optimism, ingenuousness, and vitality (and usually money, too), become twisted into knots trying to decipher the manners and motives of Europe and Europeans. As long as Americans travel to Europe, James will always be relevant, and as long as James is relevant, so too will novels like Joseph Olshan's "The Conversion," preoccupied as it is with the subtleties and mysteries of the Continent, and the dogged efforts of Americans to translate - or as Olshan would have it, to convert - not only their language and behavior, but the essence of feeling, into a culture at once so accessible and so unyieldingly foreign.
"The Conversion" is also about the collision of American and Italian writers. The narrator, a Brooklynite named Russell Todaro and the author of an obscure novella, still pines for the married Parisian who refused to leave his wealthy wife. While Russell is traveling through Europe with his lover, Ed, an older, very successful American poet who is struggling to finish his memoirs, Ed has a sort of premonition. In a Paris cafe he approaches the elegant Italian novelist Marina Vezzoli, whom he once met briefly, but (to his mind) memorably. But the woman feigns not to remember him, lightly insulting his Italian for good measure. That evening, after a bungled burglary attempt in their hotel room, Ed suffers a fatal heart attack. Soon, inquiries about Ed's missing, uncompleted manuscript come across the Atlantic, and the blunt yet enigmatic Marina reappears, as if one cue, to offer Russell a respite at her storied Tuscan villa. Her true agenda is at first difficult to discern.
The Villa Guidi is renowned for its 15th-century stone passageways once used to spirit away Jews during World War II; the Jews eventually converted to Catholicism, giving Marina the title of her award-winning novel, "The Conversion." In Olshan's hands the conversions multiply: sentiments are converted from one language to another; several men in the tale seroconvert when exposed to HIV; and falling in love and coming to long-delayed decisions - these too are framed, often quite chillingly and convincingly, as conversions. This business of conversion is elusive, and richly suggestive, which is something that Russell, who works as a translator, well understands: "A translator must always be aware that certain phrases and ideas do not always find easy equivalents in other tongues," he notes. "They can be like two religions based on similar principles but that have flourished under the organization of different regimes. Some words simply cannot be converted."
Translation is inexact work, an art not a science, with irresolution built into the endeavor; Olshan ups the ante, and is especially provocative and perceptive when he likens conversion to a seductive brand of self-destruction. His beautifully textured novel is steeped in the modernist search for meaning, with its resolutions ever receding. Good modernist that he is, Olshan has a sure handle on the literary tradition in which he locates himself, and its attendant thematic complexities. He has also woven an unerringly culturally accurate travel mystery that finds a respectable place in the subgenre of Jamesian international novels. It delights and engrosses the reader with a richness of detail, and through its crafting of a beguiling character in the seemingly unsentimental Marina, who demonstrates that "European" combination of practicality, calculation, wisdom, and inscrutability.
Drew Limsky, who received his doctorate in English from NYU, is the editor in chief of Lexus magazine.