the power of stories to shape reality

Ian McGuire in The Guardian:

BookWe live in a world made up of competing and contradictory stories: stories about origins and identity, the good and the bad, the future and the past. Although we can never be sure that any one of these stories represents the absolute or permanent truth, some are more believable and appealing than others. While some encourage hope and tolerance, others foster only anxiety, anger or despair. But what makes one kind of story, one version of reality, more successful than another? Why do some live and flourish, while others are ignored or disappear? In the era of Twitter storms and fake news these questions are more important and pressing than ever, and they lie at the core of Marcel Theroux’s ambitious, if idiosyncratic, new novel. As he tells us himself, in one of the novel’s several moments of disarming directness: “The thesis of this book is that we are trapped in stories but that we may be able to imagine our way to better ones. There are other stories than the ones we have collectively chosen. There are second chances and redemption.” Theroux explores these big philosophical and historical questions through the life story of his protagonist Nicolas Notovitch. Notovitch, who is based on an actual historical figure, is born into a Jewish family in Crimea in the late 19th century, but at 17 abandons them and his Jewish heritage and begins a process of life-long reinvention, becoming first a journalist, then a propagandist, a spy, a revisionist biblical scholar, and finally the owner of a Parisian department store. He represents a modern cosmopolitanism that is open-minded and free-wheeling but also, on more than one occasion, morally vague. For Notovich the price of his escape from tradition is a kind of perpetual uncertainty; he is a man who is never entirely sure of himself, and whose story is, as a result, never exactly fixed.

…In the end, The Secret Books, having surveyed the miserable history of 20th-century prejudice and violence, puts its battered faith in the enchanting powers of art. If history forgets or represses certain stories, Theroux implies, then it may be the task of the artist to redeem and revive them. The novel itself becomes a solution to the problems it explores, a means, limited but real, of righting wrongs, and of making stories better known. After all, who would have remembered Nicolas Notovitch and his strange and complex history if The Secret Books had never been written?

More here.