The Life of Forms in Life: On Adrian Duncan’s “A Sabbatical in Leipzig”

By Niamh CampbellJune 30, 2020

The Life of Forms in Life: On Adrian Duncan’s “A Sabbatical in Leipzig”

A Sabbatical in Leipzig by Adrian Duncan

ADRIAN DUNCAN’S SECOND NOVEL, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, presents us with the limit, both structural and thematic, as the point from which human meaning flourishes. Its protagonist, Michael, is a retired Irish bridge engineer who spends a morning puttering around his apartment in Bilbao, playing versions of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, drinking coffee, and describing with frankly idiosyncratic focus a series of encounters with objects that serve as portals to the past. None of these objects or effects — mechanical drawings, a porcelain cup, the quality of light reflected in accidentally harmonious or at least sympathetic windowpanes, an envelope of photographs — open into emotive Proustian sinkholes or sequences; there is instead a gently obsessive and narrow margin to Michael’s concerns. They are not sudden lava flows of memory, but the contours of a ritual enacted each morning before he leaves for his daily trip to the nearby Guggenheim Museum, to visit Richard Serra’s huge steel structures in, once again, a set order, with intent.

A degree of this ritual mediates grief for Michael’s deceased partner Catherine, and much of the recollections are of the titular sabbatical in GDR-era Leipzig, where the young Michael joined Catherine from London on an impulse of love and in the destabilizing aftermath of a colleague’s suicide. Other memories take Michael back to his childhood in Ireland, the son of a turf contractor in a provincial town curiously rendered as B— but probably Duncan’s own hometown of Ballymahon in County Longford. All these elements are linked by a spectral structure echoed materially in other, overt structures that are analyzed and considered in A Sabbatical in Leipzig. These include engineer’s drawings, Irish rural electrification grids, and the architecture of Michael’s apartment. The logic of the novel is compositional. On the surface of it, not an awful lot happens. At its base, it is a book about a man remembering the woman he loved while, if this is possible to imagine, granting her a degree of unknowability and independence which is both unusual in a male protagonist (let’s face it) and evocative of precisely the kind of love he feels for her: they are equals, separate individuals, and undemonstrative people. They are also artists. Their view of the world as a creative entity made up of sensual components is woven into the narrative and reflected in their quiet passions — architecture and museum curation, respectively — and the backstory that emerges from it is one of deliberate isolation. Therein lies plot.

Michael has left a specific kind of quietly desperate world in Ireland, invoked early through two mnemonic touchstones in the Bilbao apartment. The first is ivy growing on external walls:

In winter all that remains is this network of light-brown root lines of varying moisture and thickness. When I was a young boy my mother gave me the job each spring of snipping and sawing back the ivy that clung to the rear and front of our house. My mother was an anxious sort. I think now she most likely suffered from OCD. She fixated on things.

Following this plain-spoken disclosure, the mother fades into the impact of this on the family — siblings whose days are shaped by separate forms of labor and paranoid maintenance of the house, a father largely absent at work, an atmosphere in which things are not said, help is not asked for, and any kind of ease between people is withheld. This is an early and, in Ireland, familiar form of isolation within large and strict family structures functioning as economic units rather than havens for growth or love. It’s not surprising that Michael leaves this, but it is remarkable that the bond he forms with Catherine should also be based in separate passions and privacy. It is a strange quality between them, but transformed by tenderness: after her death, Michael stumbles across an envelope of notes she has kept from their time together but immediately retreats — “I sealed the envelope over. I did not then, and do not now consider these things as my possessions.”

The next object to represent this stultified family is a photograph taken by Michael’s brother “on what was to become [Michael’s] last day of work on my father’s strip of bog on a late September afternoon in the early Sixties.” It seems resonant that this brother is named Allen — the Bog of Allen being Ireland’s largest of these industrialized bogs — and Allen’s reasons for both taking and sending this photo to Michael seem tied to the bog. The aged Michael speculates: “he wanted to document this place,” “[he] wanted the photograph to perform as ballast against a type of intellectual high falutin’ in me that he [did] not approve of,” “[he] wanted to photograph me with these man my father employed for the wholes of their lives and by doing so explain to me that I would always be somehow under my father’s employ.”

Michael’s siblings grow up to occupy lives more obviously suited to the children of a midlands turf contractor, marrying, remaining in B—, and in Allen’s case reducing a creative impulse to working as a paparazzo in London, becoming embittered about this. They unite in hostility toward Michael’s “intellectual high falutin’” and, ultimately, to the self-possessed Catherine. There is a sense that Michael’s sisters, as conventional women who could have been otherwise but opted not to be, cannot get a grasp on Catherine because the couple’s unit is so placidly inviolate: when a sister accuses him of being “disconnected,” she describes a muted refusal to remain primarily defined by the drama of the nuclear family. A refusal, after a childhood of work with little purpose beyond the maintenance of the structure, to be of use.

Michael trains as an engineer, turning his fixation on order to the artful orchestration of order and logic to build bridges (literal ones, that is). For 15 years he works with a firm in London until disaster puts an end to this life, leading to Leipzig, Catherine, and happiness. First, however, there is suffering. The London firm takes on a job but fatally miscalculates the depth of bedrock beneath the site. We are told, in quite technical terms, that this resulted in the foundation structures — concrete tubes — falling two meters short of solid surface, causing subsidence, and worse. The ensuing row bankrupts the geotechnics company employed to calculate the depth. “Some weeks later the principal of the geotechnics company, an old colleague of mine from my first few years in London and of whom I was particularly fond, was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills and vodka,” leaving behind a family.

As is typical in this reflective and delicate novel, catastrophe is disclosed neatly but the horror is still vivid and irreparable. It is embodied by “those two metres of black boulder clay between the tips of our tubes and the surface of the bedrock sufficient in stiffness to receive them”:

I think often of the tips of the tubes sinking like pencils into dough, and the settlement forces this transferred back up to the metre-thick basement slab of this library — forces large enough to bring about these massive cracks and to allow this foul water to emerge and spill across the surface of the basement. I can still recall the smell of faeces and creosote that night we were called to site, all of us barely breathing with shock.

It is at this moment a relation between the order of Michael’s mundane life and the ambiguous, imperfectly controllable forces of order and structure and composition governing life in the world blend into a latent and almost spiritual concern with the soul, the psyche, and the planet. Something unspeakably bleak bubbles up, here, in the form of excrement and creosote: it converts to despair, it leads to death, it reroutes the life of one of the people left. Michael leaves London for Leipzig and Catherine because order has failed and his sabbatical, a long stretch of “gardening leave,” is a zone of death and rebirth. When we first meet him, dozing in bed with her, their entwined limbs occur to him as a series of intimately balanced links and stresses reliant on the technologies of their bodies and the points at which these bodies intersect, support, and wear down over time. It makes him think at once not just of bridges but of bridges he has designed, bridges existing still in the world: it makes him panic about the possibility of errors and weaknesses in design. Which is to say the return of catastrophe, of creosote or shit, or death, or regret.

To channel the human condition through the worldview of an engineer in this effortless but immensely technical way is highly unusual in fiction, especially in an era of Anglophone interconnectedness and the drift of literature toward a reparative or ameliorative function which must be obvious and accessible to achieve both market reach and wide-ranging relevance. A Sabbatical in Leipzig is not trying to be this kind of book. It’s not trying not to be this kind of book either, but its plainspoken, obsessive commitment to life as an engineering project which is not just a cute or enabling metaphor but a dull thing of plans, measurements, physics, accuracy, and functionality makes no attempt to bring the reader into a blunt-edged or humanist vision of engineer-as-symbol. It’s far, far more intelligent than that. The thing is, the engineer is a symbol, and his view of the world is deeply, compassionately human — you just have to earn this realization because A Sabbatical in Leipzig is not interested in spelling it out.

Readers understandably balking a little at this are directed to Duncan’s debut, Love Notes from a German Building Site, which only came out last year. The speed with which A Sabbatical in Leipzig followed is not the only sign that these works should be read as versions of the same project; Love Notes also concern itself with loneliness, companionship, engineering, and expatriate masculinity. Its couple is younger and its scope more contemporary, taking in the modern bohemian and historically complex metropolis of Berlin as a space offering freedom of thought and movement to young and creative people. The novel follows Paul, a young engineer following his girlfriend to Berlin and meeting the fitfully organized but mostly chaotic milieu of multilingual labor and loneliness as a world of words, technical and pedestrian, shading into difference.

The “love notes” themselves are lists from a notebook of on-the-job German taken from a dictionaries, but distractedly and tactilely: Paul explains that “when I was looking up a word I’d spot an unrelated word nearby, become distracted and get drawn off into another part of the dictionary, often getting lost and forgetting my original intention.” Thus meaning, and especially encounters between Paul and the environment, become amorphous events that open into art. He and a co-worker begin laying out brushes in lines, stacking washers, leveling lasers into targets and shapes, and lining up planks in a “wordless language” of gestures and intention; sculpture hidden among the debris of the building site.

In the hands of other, older Irish writers treating of laborers on foreign building sites — of the flip between vulnerability and camaraderie that can happen in an instant in these, mostly unseen and non-literary, zones of working-class exchange — such gestures would become moments of serendipitous poetry, perhaps, and ennoblement. In Duncan’s story, they are mischievous but more compelling for gesturing toward a depth of experience that cannot be easily described. The wordless language doesn’t replace something else (solidarity, self-expression) but represents a preexisting world, of form and shape and sensation, into which the individual is thrown. These individuals are also pointedly international, since the Berlin building sites, like building sites all over Europe and America, are populated by economic migrants, in this case from Russia, Ireland, Britain, and Eastern Europe.

While Paul processes this view of the world as a fluctuating, sensual thing through the disorientation of the building site, Michael does it through analyzing memories of punchy moments, mnemonics, and motifs that are defined by a kind of Gestalt-like incontrovertibility. Take the table-tennis ball. Because one of the few things we learn about Catherine’s life before Leipzig is her prize-winning table-tennis hobby, Michael recalls their own games on the public tables of a nearby park. In particular, he remembers one:

This must have happened on a mid-summer’s afternoon because I remember from this moment the sun flaring through the leaves of a tree overhead, the rhombus plane of white-grey concrete of the table-tennis table towards the bottom left, a splash of sky blue emerging from somewhere to the right of my eye and a dab of grey from the underside of Catherine’s right foot as she leaned forward to deliver the forehand stroke. But all of this is to the periphery of the image because what commands its centre is the white curvature of the table-tennis ball hurtling towards my eye, it most likely the last thing I registered before I flinched.

The eidetic detail of this description, which is not comprehended but reproduced as shots and splashes of color, is typical of the style of A Sabbatical in Leipzig generally. Structurally we have no linear direction, but loops and tangents held together by richly specific memories. The imprint such images leave on Michael’s memory is not the work of shock but some autonomous agency of shape, something which comes from without or occurs only in collaboration with the world. A lot of the atmosphere and texture of A Sabbatical in Leipzig is concerned with this. Its richness suffuses the plot — one man’s muted, willful, and outwardly unheroic life — with meaning and empathy by appealing to the fact that we, the readers, all exist in this flux of movement and shape also: we all need to make meaning from what might, in the end, be meaningless.

The instant splits into further memories linked only by the curvature of the ball. Sharpest is the white kneecap of an ewe held down, by a local vet and the teenaged Michael, for an injection, a shock of violence summoned not as a smell or a feeling but only as a pure white kneecap curved, for one apprehending millisecond, like the table-tennis ball. Young Michael dreams of it afterward, “this white curve bobbing around, fluctuating in size and quality of gloss,” and it means the ball becomes a pure moment of recognition, hinging on nothing but visual coincidence, which unites two stages of life and contains everything in between in a way that is indifferent of narrative need. It’s not a lyric moment serving to bridge events; it’s not even a lyric moment disguised as a redundant one for the purpose of bridging events. It just sort of is.

There is a story here too, of course. There’s the story of this morning, of an old man’s stretching exercises and characteristically precise work on a translation of work by Robert Walser, but also of the understated devotion of Michael and Catherine, whose respective vocations and relationship are so all-consuming it seems they have little need of anyone else. Catherine is an orphan who works as a museum curator of porcelain artifacts, and after her death this substance — another smooth and glossy phenomenon with kinaesthetic vibrations reaching back, for Michael, through life — is the one which represents her. She is, in particular, the tiny, valuable decorative cup Michael takes his morning coffee in. A care for craft and the compressed historical gestures present in a single object is also suggested by her GDR-era Praktica camera, and the candid photos she leaves behind of Michael crossing a street in Leipzig: one moment, otherwise unremarkable, captured and made solid after Catherine is gone.

Haunting this story is the wider and more widely accepted story of Irish emigration, an arc of departure and loss extending across the planet, but usually represented in popular culture in terms laid out by a vehement Irish American diasporic elite. This has sometimes made it too familiar as kitsch. Movement between Ireland and Europe, usually Britain but also the continent, has been a quieter and more ambivalent theme in art and literature since, especially, the 1950s. This is emigration post-independence, and it functioned as an economic pressure valve allowing the conservative and theocratic Republic of Ireland to consolidate a certain amount of cultural power by dispensing with those who did not fit in. The best-known Irish avatars of literary exile are James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, both of whom write largely from and to high culture; Duncan’s late installment speaks to the lower-middle- and working-class experience.

High cultural exiles are exiled by their personal incompatibility with conservative Catholicism; working-class exiles are exiled by the material barriers which keep them from partaking in the state with dignity or security. Ireland is a country which, in the middle years of the 20th century, incarcerated women, men, and children for falling outside of set parameters of moral conduct but also economic viability — it rounded up the children of the poor — ensuring an atmosphere of paranoid conformity. The peculiar anxiety of Michael’s mother, frantically maintaining her household in the ’50s midlands, can be considered in this contextual light, even if it is not made explicit. So too can a scene from Michael and Catherine’s middle years, when they are visiting a married sister and pulled into an absurd, comical, faintly despairing conflict over an Easter Sunday meal Catherine does not wish to eat. Edel accuses her of having “notions,” vernacular slang for snobbery still bandied about with regularity here. Catherine, bemused, has no response, her reticence reading as “hard” and further insulting the hospitality Edel is obliged to perform. A polite Irish guest would know better and partake.

There are failures of comprehension on all sides here which are inexpressible and unresolved. A culture forcing women, especially, to undertake all the work of keeping families together and presentable relies on collaboration from everyone else to support and invest in this work as indispensable. If it isn’t, this means whole lives have been proscribed in the name of appearances. Nobody living this reality wants to feel that way. Nor, arguably, do they wish to recognize the courage and independence of thought — the sacrifice — involved in rejecting it: Michael and Catherine won’t collaborate, so they cannot live this way. Their life together is solitary. Indeed, they are not only outsiders in respect of their origin cultures but also, broadly and oddly, in respect of the West: they migrate to the Soviet bloc and settle comfortably there into lives of spartan self-sufficiency. They are watched by the Stasi but don’t really seem to mind. A fondness for order and thoroughness permeates this and Love Notes, along with a quiet regard for the love object’s privacy: even after the argument over Easter dinner, Michael knows it is Catherine’s coolness which attracted him to begin with: “It was something I wanted to approach, to feel what might be warmth in it.”

Duncan is a practicing artist, based in Berlin, and one of a generation of post-bailout — which is to say post-’90s, post-kitsch, post-Irish writing as ambassadorial, vis-à-vis the global world of letters or at least the English-speaking part — working between writing and art. He has this in common with Sue Rainsford, Kevin Breathnach, Ian Maleney, and Sara Baume; all writers drawing materially on art practice or skimming theories and modes of approach from photography, sculpture, sound art, and art history. He is especially well placed as an editor of Paper Visual, a journal of art and writing published in Dublin and for which Duncan has written on the need for “compassion” in criticism; the need for an open-ended, facilitatory flow between artwork and spectator that stands down ego and taste. The cover image of A Sabbatical in Leipzig is chosen from Paul Gaffney’s 2013 photographic series We Make the Path by Walking: a greenly revelatory shot of trees flourishing underneath what looks like the stained concrete span of an elevated autobahn.

The path made is one of slow pilgrimage, a receptive “I” in an autonomous landscape, and a humility of purpose, affectively planar and contained, carries this atmosphere through Duncan’s novel. It suggests, in its secularity, a respect for the world before us, during us, and finally after us.


Niamh Campbell’s work has appeared in The Dublin ReviewFive Dials, gorse, 3:AM, Banshee, and Tangerine, and is forthcoming in Granta and Somesuch Stories. Her debut novel, This Happy, is forthcoming with Weidenfeld and Nicolson in June 2020. She lives in Dublin.

LARB Contributor

Niamh Campbell’s work has appeared in The Dublin Review, Five Dials, gorse, 3:AM, Banshee, and Tangerine, and is forthcoming in Granta and Somesuch Stories. Her debut novel, This Happy, is forthcoming with Weidenfeld and Nicolson in June 2020. She lives in Dublin.


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