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Pontifex

Anna Benn

A Sabbatical in Leipzig, by Adrian Duncan, Lilliput Press, 144 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1843517764

In the morning when I wake in the warmth beside her, our arms criss-crossing each other, connecting and sliding at points, I remember different steel suspension bridges I designed as a younger man.

It’s rare to come across an opening sentence that so perfectly encompasses the book it’s introducing, but Adrian Duncan achieves this in his second novel, A Sabbatical in Leipzig. Sabbatical is a book about love, and bridges, two themes which are inextricably intertwined in the memories of Michael, an aging engineer. Duncan, drawing on his decade of experience working as a structural engineer before returning to school for a degree in Fine Arts, immerses the reader in the nostalgia of a man trained not only to understand the world at a mathematical level, but to build it. For readers accustomed to literary fiction’s oversaturation of English professors and similarly liberal-arts-based protagonists, Duncan’s analytical prose and oblique approach to human relationships is both a relief and a recalibration of staid literary conventions we take for granted.

Over the course of the book, Michael relives – spiralling through them almost compulsively – vignettes from his childhood, career, nervous breakdown, eponymous sabbatical, and sole romantic relationship. His language is minimalist, almost clinical at points, but conveys a deep appreciation for the functionality of the physical world, as well as its beauty. This juxtaposition of art and engineering, of beauty and function and how the two complement each other, is the crux of Sabbatical that Duncan explores over the course of Michael’s life. He introduces the reader to various bridges he has admired around the world – both constructed from steel and, as he witnessed during his travels to India, grown from tree roots – that to Michael represent the melding of these two virtues, grace and elegance complementing a sound structure.

This core motif of the book is further developed in Michael’s relationship with Catherine, a researcher who received her doctorate in Chinese porcelain production. Catherine serves as Michael’s main conduit to the understanding that objects hold value beyond their usefulness: “I spent most of my life trying to shed objects from which I felt I had extracted my use … Catherine was by no means a hoarder, but she had an easier relationship with useless objects than I.” Michael associates her with porcelain (a substance he previously knew only as the material used to insulate the tops of electricity poles), both because porcelain is the focus of her career and because (Duncan implies) her presence in his life is delicate.

The perfectionism and drive with which she approaches her career mirrors Michael’s own. Her crowning achievement, while working at Leipzig’s Grassi Museum of Applied Arts, was her redesign of the porcelain exhibition to draw attention away from the disparity between the “vulgar” rococo European works and the minimalist East Asian cups and vases, thus protecting “the Germans from ridicule”. Here, and elsewhere, Duncan portrays Catherine as the ideal balance between aesthetic and utility, symbolised by the elegant porcelain saucer presented to her by the museum as a parting gift. It is objectively beautiful, but Michael also uses it to drink coffee.

Less deftly-written characters would have risked becoming caricatures of the fusty STEM professional and the free-spirited art lover who brings a breath of fresh air into his solitary life. However, both characters are nuanced and flawed, and as Michael runs through his memories of leaving Ireland to live in London, Leipzig and Bilbao, the reader comes to learn both his and Catherine’s passions, foibles, and fears. Between Catherine’s English coolness – interpreted by Michael’s siblings as contempt – and Michael’s gentleness, Duncan paints a picture of a quiet but tender relationship, a couple growing old together from the very beginning.

Although Duncan portrays him as somewhat liminal to the rest of humanity, more confident in how to interact with bridges than people, Michael maintains a generous, almost naive belief in other people’s good intentions. He assumes his neighbours in Bilbao will be as eager as himself to participate in an experiment where they position their windows at differing angles to turn their reflections of the sunrise into a light show. Likewise, recalling an “excitable young man” from his childhood who did shoddy work installing electric poles for the rural electrification scheme, Michael judges that he did so out of keenness to boost his team’s performance numbers rather than laziness.

Michael’s sensitivity is in part what triggers his nervous breakdown, following the disastrous miscalculations in the design of a civic centre in France that led to a colleague’s suicide. And while he alludes to a bout of mental stress while he lived in Leipzig with Catherine, referring to it as “mania” and even using the term “OCD” to describe the cleaning regimens his mother assigned to her children, Michael himself – his exactitude in observing and conveying details, his enthusiasm for seeking out patterns in the cities where he lives that at one point gets him followed by the Stasi – goes undiagnosed.

It is his off-kilter perception of the world and receptivity to seemingly unimportant details that make his point of view such a rare and encompassing read. Sabbatical is a slow-paced book with precisely calculated prose, reflecting its narrator’s patience, and even enjoyment, of repetitive tasks. While there is not much by way of a plot, it is fascinating to experience the world as Michael deconstructs it. Certain observations read like a travelogue, describing Bilbao’s Old Town, the Mercado Ribera and the “absurd, glinting Guggenheim”, while others seem to describe scenes out of a parallel, mathematical universe where buildings are living organisms.

Michael describes a building heating up over the course of the day, the steel and glass expanding in the heat of the sun and then contracting overnight, as the building inhaling and exhaling. A bridge built of two cantilevers he likens to “two lungs” and describes how when a vehicle passes over them the two halves of the bridge will “nod to each other”. He explores the eight freestanding steel sculptures by Richard Serra (an artist introduced to him by Catherine) in the Guggenheim museum, tracking the number of permutations of the order in which he can walk through them.

Even his experience of emotions he describes in geometric terms, as “vectors pulling at my psyche”. While he rarely listens to music, the one composition he is interested in – Schubert’s Trout Quintet, a piece that triggers a memory of grieving with his siblings after their mother’s burial – he listens to compulsively until he has mentally broken it down into discrete pieces of sound that he can visualise how to fit back together.

Duncan draws a stark contrast between Michael’s post-Ireland existence, of light and sound experiments and living bridges, and his unfulfilling childhood harvesting turf in an Irish bog. Taken as a whole, Michael’s family is something of a familiar archetype in Irish fiction – dysfunctional, coming together only to grieve or squabble, resenting him for abandoning them to study in Dublin. But the siblings hold their own as characters, each with their individual hold on Michael’s memory.

Sabbatical is a novel largely devoid of emotional affect; that Michael feels love for the people who pass into and out of his life is something the reader must infer from his language, from situations remembered and those he leaves out. However, this habitual quietude serves to highlight his grief on the rare occasions when he does overtly express it – for example, when, after meeting with his brother in Dublin, he reflects with regret on the distance that has grown between himself and his siblings.

Similarly, his relationship with Catherine is no sweeping romance – his decision to follow her to Leipzig Catherine responds to with characteristic reserve, telling him, “do please come”. Rather it is mapped out in routines and quotidian details: perusing market stalls and record shops in Leipzig, learning German, visiting art museums and playing table tennis. This subtle weaving together of remembered fragments from their life makes her absence, a reality Michael spends his days trying to distract himself from, that much more heartrending.

Although the the introspective nature of the book impacts on the pacing, Sabbatical is a deftly constructed portrait of a man preoccupied with details, slowly spiralling through memories superimposed on memories. While the focus of his passion and admiration is generally reserved for bridges and other precociously designed sculptures, his love for the people in his life is no less immense for being implied. Despite (or, indeed, because of) the narrative style’s starkness in imagery and prioritising of analysis over emotion, Sabbatical is both haunting and devastating. Lacking much of a plot, it is more of an organic unspooling of incidents, relationships, perceptions and losses, an exercise in re-examining the world and finding the marvellous in the mundane.

1/4/2020

Anna Benn is a writer and editor based in Dublin. She has an MPhil in Children's Literature from Trinity College and an MA in Writing from NUI, Galway. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Crannog Magazine, the Two of Cups Press and The Toast.  

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