The Spirit of the Master

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

THE CONVERSION

By Joseph Olshan

St. Martin's. 278 pp. $24.95

Here's Henry James again, although this time not as the main character of a novel, as in Colm Tóibín's The Master or David Lodge's Author, Author. In Joseph Olshan's intelligent new novel, his eighth, it's the spirit of Henry James -- of "The Aspern Papers," for instance, and "The Lesson of the Master" -- that hovers over the historic Tuscan villa in which much of the story takes place. Olshan's updated Jamesian narrator, Russell Todaro, is a young American in Europe, a stalled writer in an old world that privileges social custom over romantic passion. But Russell is also, to Olshan's credit, a figure whom James could never have created, even if he'd been able to imagine him: He's gay and Jewish.

It's hard to summarize The Conversion, given its rather dense surfeit of subplots, which include a few too many coincidences as well as a murky tale of political intrigue that never comes to fruition. But at heart it's Russell's story, and it starts when Russell's most recent lover, an older, distinguished American poet named Ed Cannon, suffers a fatal heart attack in Paris, leaving behind an unfinished memoir. All the rest is aftermath.

Broke, and with nowhere else to go, Russell accepts an invitation from a renowned Italian novelist, Marina Vezzoli, to stay for as long as he desires in the Tuscan villa where she lives with her reclusive husband, a political writer who fears assassination by Muslim terrorists. Although Russell has no claim to it, he pirates Ed's memoir to Italy to keep it from a grasping literary executrix who wants to have it published.

There's much to admire in The Conversion, not least the clean and nuanced elegance of Olshan's prose. In dramatizing Russell's painful dilemma over whether or not Ed's unfinished memoir should be destroyed -- particularly after Russell discovers that Ed has written of him harshly in it and has sometimes even lied -- Olshan explores with depth, as did Henry James, the ways in which all human motives are far from transparent.

But for all I admired in the novel, I often found myself tiring of what sometimes seemed a series of exhausted Jamesian descriptions of Italy and, above all, Marina Vezzoli's villa, with its old stone balustrades, tromp l'oeil arches and cavernous, frescoed ballroom.

Olshan's Russell is a terrific creation, a man who wants to be converted by love but is unable to recognize, at least at first, his own disabling complexities. But I'm not sure I've ever read the word "loggia" so many times in one novel.

--Richard McCann is the author, most recently, of "Mother of Sorrows."


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