“I was really, really interested in projective geometries” is not a response you often get when asking a writer what inspired their new novel. But then Adrian Duncan is not like other writers. He has published two novels and a collection of stories, which share an interest in things and places as much as people, and have what he calls a “neutral” style.
We are talking remotely ahead of the publication of his third novel, the intriguingly titled The Geometer Lobachevsky. Duncan is in Innsbruck, Austria (before heading home to Berlin) where his Zoom background is suitably austere: a white wall, a grey door frame; positively Beckettian.
His interest in the technical may be connected to his background: he trained and worked as a structural engineer for years, first in Dublin and then in Edinburgh. “And then the big boom money was hitting Dublin around 2004, and I said to myself, I want some of that!” But after a couple of years designing commercial buildings, of doubled wages but also doubled living expenses – “I ended up with a net gain of zero” – he “developed an itch to study fine art, or to become better at non-technical drawing”.
He worked on his fine art portfolio in the evenings after work, and also started creative writing. In one important sense this was a revelation to him. “When you work in engineering, most of your thinking is aimed towards problem solving. Whereas in the arts, problems aren’t a problem; they’re interesting things. It’s a psychological shift, essentially. I find it a much more preferable way to be in the world.”
It wasn’t, however, a much more preferable way to be in Dublin. “I left Ireland in 2013, just because the recession squeezed me out of there completely. I couldn’t afford rent. My girlfriend got a job in a publishers in Berlin, so we just said, right, we’ll go.”
Hang on – Berlin? Surely that city is no cheaper than Dublin for someone who has recently given up a well-paid job to take his chances on the choppy seas of the creative arts? “If you’re moving there now, yeah. It was cheaper in 2013. But the other thing that’s really important is that you can rent in mainland Europe, in places like Amsterdam and Berlin, and your rights are protected as a renter. And that stability produces not just a roof over your head but an enormous amount of headspace too.”
Duncan may no longer be an engineer but his writing is clearly that of someone with a particular way of seeing. His first novel, Love Notes from a German Building Site, took the form of a report, and was interested in buildings and work. His second, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, opens with a technical drawing question from a school exam. Rónán Hession astutely says that Duncan – who is his “favourite Irish author writing today” – is “like a nature writer, but about man-made stuff”,
His new novel is similar to the others but also represents a development. It brings us the voice of Russian geometer – that is, a mathematician of geometry – Nikolai Lobachevsky, who has travelled to Ireland in the 1950s to work on a land survey for Bord na Móna.
It’s at this point in our conversation that Duncan mentions his enthusiasm for projective geometries, that is, designs “that engineers and architects use for drawing elevations or plans”. While he was researching these, he came across the original Nikolai Lobachevsky, a real Russian geometer in the 19th century: Duncan’s character is his great-grandson. “And at the same time I was reading a book by CS Andrews, the Irish politician, called Man of No Property, and he wrote about two trips he made as chief executive of Bord na Móna, back in 1935, when they went over to Russia and Germany. They produced these ties [interrupted only by the second World War] in relation to technological developments for the bog.”
Lobachevsky in the book has a formal, stately way of expressing himself, as we might expect from a foreigner finding his way. And there’s a certain comedy in the way his slightly stiff manner interacts with the flow and casual speech of the locals, which Duncan’s “austere”, “neutral” style might not lead the reader to expect. “Yeah,” he says, “I really love really dry humour. Where you have these two registers, a rather formal aloof-sounding man, and these more informal-speaking men, that’ll produce not just misunderstandings, but a kind of power shift in terms of localisms that aren’t accessible to the other person. To me it would be a great failure if there wasn’t humour in the book as well. Of course I understand some people won’t get it.”
In the book, Lobachevsky is not entirely comfortable with how things are back home in Russia. Indeed, he believes himself to be under threat by the state, and obtains a Polish passport with the aim of lying low in Ireland. The plot in this respect develops more dramatically than readers of Duncan’s previous books might expect. At the end he lists some of his research into the terrors of the Soviet state machinery and Stalin’s gulags. What did he discover?
Paranoia and control
“The thing you get is how one man’s paranoia, through the horsepower of the state, can extend to such dispensability of life. It’s not out of some sort of ideology like Hitler, it’s just out of paranoia and control. And the devastation on those countless lives is just unimaginable. The other thing was, because of the size of the country, there’s a sort of slovenliness within it all, it’s poorly done. Even the brutality. Because human life is so expendable, it produces such a poorly run system.”
The paranoia of one man, the attempted devastation hampered by its own poorly run systems – it all sounds a bit familiar with what’s happening in Russia now, doesn’t it?
“It’s bizarre,” says Duncan. “For a country that size, they keep putting the wrong form of power structures into it. It’s just so enormous, and you’re trying to make something out of such diversity and such range . . .” But, he adds quickly, “I’m no politician! All I can talk about is what I did for the book. One power structure that I was interested in was electricity, and how over these long distances in Russia, they used a particular kind of electrical conduction and transformation. . .”
We turn to the subject of writers that have inspired Duncan. One of his dearest literary inspirations, as unique and idiosyncratic as Duncan’s own writing, is the Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Readers of Murnane will be familiar with his obsessions, examined and re-examined over decades in his books: horse racing, coloured glass, “images”. What did reading Murnane teach him?
“The thing that absolutely most influenced me was that he said to me, it’s okay for your obsessions to be narrow, but for you to pursue them. You don’t need to write sprawling narratives. For instance, I was looking at a photograph of my parents’ home recently: just two electricity poles, there’s some turf, an engineer’s office and a bungalow. And I’ve spent the last 10 years looking at these things obsessively. Lilliput Press sometimes write that there’s an internationality to my work, but I haven’t actually left my parents’ house, in terms of fascinations. Even though they’re maybe not literary things, like the industrialisation of peatlands, and electricity poles. But I don’t care, because they’re so giving to me, they’re so full of meaning and image.”
What about younger writers? Does he read his contemporaries, or younger Irish writers? He does. Wendy Erskine: “Jesus Christ, she’s so good.” Niamh Campbell: “A very, very interesting writer.” Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times: “A brilliant collection.” And “I always enjoy Rob Doyle’s writing”. Outside Ireland, he raves about Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. “Astonishingly good . . . amazingly good.”
But, “I’m going to say something that sounds really ungenerous . . . I’m careful about what I read in contemporary writing, because partly what you’re reading is what’s deemed successful by the industry. And the industry is important, if you want to publish a book, but at the same time you don’t want to be writing toward it, towards what the industry wants.” Of course, if you’re as good a writer as Duncan, part of the industry may come to reshape itself around you. Long may he continue to write about his obsessions.
The Geometer Lobachevsky is published by Lilliput Press on April 1st