Wednesday, 4 January 2012

If not now, when?

Primo Levi's 1982 novel If Not Now, When? chronicles the adventures of a group of Russian and Polish refugees caught behind German-occupied lines in World War II. I read this remarkable book several years ago and expected it to be a rather worthy account of tragic events, since Levi himself was survivor of Auschwitz. Instead, I found it to be a compelling, fast-moving adventure, full of drama and beautifully-written.

I was immediately reminded of Levi's novel when we were presented with Annie's short story, based loosely on her Estonian father’s wartime experience. In Annie's story, the protagonist -- a young man called Olev -- admits, at the time of the Russian invasion, he 'wasn't even the man of the house, let alone a man of the world'. He is confronted with a choice: to fight for those who have invaded his country and taken his freedom ... or to flee. The ensuing events follow Olev and his younger brother as they leave the family farm and head north, dodging Russian troops. Annie's story cleverly shows how Olev's obsessive-compulsive difficulties in later life are a direct result of his wartime experiences. Thus, not only is this a convincing slice of history but also a realistic psychological portrait.

As we were reunited for our first meeting of 2012, Linda observed that the story was quite a departure from Annie's usual subject matter. Several of us were confused by what exactly became of Olev’s brother. We all presumed he must have been drowned in the river-crossing but this was ambiguous, perhaps highlighting the difficulty of making meaning clear, particularly when describing an action-packed scene. Clive liked the verisimilitude of the formal language used in the dialogue, suggesting the 1940s setting and creating the illusion of characters speaking a foreign language. Everyone agreed that the ending could be strengthened by deleting the two final sentences, proving once again that, sometimes, less is more.

In our news roundup, several of us have taken up the challenge to submit an entry for a Reader's Digest competition to write an ultra-short story of a mere 100 words. Whether or not any of us win, we plan to post all of our entries on the SVA blog in the future. Clive is working on a very dark short story about Ireland. Rob has entered the Birmingham Book Festival Short Story competition. Linda continues to receive lots of positive feedback from her writing mentor on her novel-in-progress, as she assiduously produces 10,000 words per month. Chris is currently working nights in his day job (so to speak) and -- as a former night worker myself -- I sympathised with the disruption this causes to life in general and any attempt at a writing routine in particular. I'm not sure if it's any consolation to Chris that William Faulkner is said to have written As I Lay Dying while working nights as a powerhouse.

And so, the powerhouse of creativity that is the SVA saw in a new year of writing activity. It's well-known that writers need to be a bit selfish and single-minded and to avoid procrastination. In the words of The Song of the Partisan:

If I'm not for myself, who will be for me?

If not this way, how? If not now, when?

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