I can’t get my head around Adrian Duncan’s A Sabbatical in Leipzig. Did I like it? It doesn’t feel like a text that has any interest in being liked. (It even opens with a Leaving Certificate exam question.) You move through this book, as though at a contemporary art exhibition. You’re confronted with a set of images. They’re complex and hard to understand. A vague sense of tedium prevails – you’d have more fun in the gift shop. Then, days later, there it is. That thing you thought was boring, or incomprehensible, has lodged in your mind. Whether or not you liked it doesn’t really matter. It is slow and affecting and really quite beautiful.
A visual artist and former engineer, Duncan brings a different way of seeing to the world of prose. As with his debut, Love Notes from a German Building Site, engineering is central to A Sabbatical in Leipzig. Our narrator is Michael, a retired bridge engineer, living in Bilbao after the death of his girlfriend, Catherine. His oddly calibrated mind guides us through. Each day, he listens to two versions of Schubert’s Trout Quintet (first movement), one from an “album of experimental symphonies”, the other “played by a traditional quintet”. It occurs to him that he should play both pieces of music simultaneously on two separate record players – an endeavour which gives a mild amount of forward propulsion to a narrative which, in truth, has no real truck with moving forward. More precise, perhaps, to say it moves in many directions, or it makes a pattern. Certain motifs (discs, electricity, porcelain, the bogland of his youth, etc) touch off each other, then bend away.
I don't think we're supposed to "get our heads around" this book – a book that explains everything; analyses and unpicks.
I read this as a novel about grief, pain, madness, though the language is mechanical; closed off from emotion. The main body of the text seems to grow from a moment, early on, when Michael lies awake in his bed with a pain in his knee. “[A] flow of mental particles” appears before his eyes. They depict elements of buildings he designed in the past, and he decides “it is high time for these constructions of mine to be compiled and surveyed”. But he is too old to carry out such a survey. Even if he could travel to where these buildings stand, he could not access the nooks and crannies of each building and bridge. The one person he would trust to carry out the survey for him is a young Danish engineer he mentored towards the end of his career. Simultaneously, he thinks of the last place he lived: Leipzig. There’s a trippy moment where the dot over the letter ‘i’ near the centre of the word Leipzig grows before his eyes and suddenly he is thinking of his “sabbatical” in Leipzig, which was induced by the suicide of his former colleague.
The concave form
Permutations have a large part to play in this book, as do hinge moments, moments of rupture, of tending towards but never quite reaching. Another thing Michael does each day is visit Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, an installation in the Guggenheim Museum. He approaches it methodically, trying to strategize his way to the point, eventually discovering: “Serra’s steel sculptures offer me a transition away from the work I carried out in the latter half of my career […] from an obsession with the concave form of the upward arc of the bridge, to the convex form of the arc turned over.” There’s something quite sad to this (can shapes evoke sadness?). A bridge becomes a hollow. A link becomes a cavity.
I don’t think we’re supposed to “get our heads around” this book – a book that explains everything; analyses and unpicks. The prologue is told “from a parallel place”. Catherine is alive (perhaps it’s the past, perhaps it’s a different version of “now”) and she and Michael wake together in a warm apartment. He has a sudden panic about a bridge he had designed many years previously, and phones an old colleague “envisioning collapse and disaster”. The colleague tells him he “need not be alarmed”, the bridge had been replaced years ago, after it was “swept away one night by a storm”. Collapse and disaster, in other words, but not as he envisioned; nothing he could have controlled.
Control; definiteness – these are under scrutiny. There’s painstaking precision to the words and design of this book. Yet from such precision comes art. The “effect” produced by these words, as Géraud de Cordemoy suggests in the epigraph, bring us towards the human, the soul. We’re in the realm of the rational, of the mechanical, but we seem to be tending towards the spiritual.