The University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies recently announced that the winner of the inaugural £5,000 John McGahern Annual Book Prize is Adrian Duncan, for his novel, Love Notes from a German Building Site.
At the time of publication, Adrian wrote a piece on the book called The Weight of a Text, which we re-publish below to help celebrate this prestigious award.
The Prize judges – University Vice-Chancellor Dame Professor Janet Beer; Chancellor and author of Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín; Professor of Irish literature in English, Frank Shovlin; and The Irish Times fiction reviewer, Sarah Gilmartin – praised the “pitch perfect debut” for its “spare, exact prose”, and how it reveals “what it might mean to be Irish in the 21st Century”.
On learning of his success, Adrian Duncan said: “I am very moved and proud to be awarded this wonderful book prize. To be associated with John McGahern, a writer I have admired for so long, is an incredible honour. I owe much to my publisher, The Lilliput Press, for taking a chance on me and for their continued support. I would like to extend my gratitude also to the Institute of Irish Studies for bringing this prize into being. “My thanks also to all of the judges, and particularly to Colm Tóibín, who had the difficult task of choosing the final book.”
Colm Tóibín said: “Love Notes from a German Building Site is written in spare, exact prose. Set mainly on a building site in Berlin, it captures the urgencies and exigencies of construction, as well as the close and strained personal relationships that develop between workers over time. “Duncan writes beautifully about cold weather, gruff manners, systems of hierarchy. He also writes beautifully about precious time off, or the occasions when memory takes over. “As well as being a portrait of work, this novel offers a picture of a sensibility – Paul, an Irishman in Berlin, conscientious, often uneasy, often bad-tempered, but ready to be transformed by his relationship with Evelyn, who travels with him, and by time spent in galleries. “At the heart of the novel is the question of language, German as a set of signs, but also the world itself as a set of signs waiting to be interpreted by the protagonist, who is created in this book with an acute and painstaking emotional accuracy.”
The Weight of a Text by Adrian Duncan
In September 2008 I left my job as a structural engineer to enrol in a fine art degree course. I had been working for a large consultancy firm in Dublin but had decided some time before that it would be interesting to study fine art. I was living alone at the time in a tiny bedsit in Drumcondra, and every evening I would come home from the office and work into the night on my portfolio of drawings. After a year of working like this, I submitted it to various art colleges and waited to see what the future would bring. I was accepted by Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design Technology (IADT) and made the decision to change direction in my life.
Over the following months and years I found myself gravitating mostly towards sculpture. My experience and understanding of building materials from my days as a structural engineer had always been of a rather abstract and mathematical kind. So when I began playing open-endedly with materials, shapes and objects in the sculpture studio in IADT, my connection with the world deepened. Around this time I was also taking part in creative writing classes in the Irish Writers Centre under the tutelage of the writer Greg Baxter. Learning the basics of writing and editing while also learning the basics of sculpture opened new and exciting ways of thinking for me.
By the end of 2010 I had run out of money and had to leave my undergraduate studies at IADT unfinished. Luckily, at that time a masters degree became available called Art in the Contemporary World at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). It is a course that combines contemporary art, visual culture and literature, and it was perfect for me. While studying in NCAD, my mind was broken open again and I found myself delving into subjects of research that have sustained me since. I became obsessed by the architecture and infrastructures of modern rural Ireland – from electricity poles, to substations, to Bord na Móna villages, to RTC campuses, to roundabout developments. I wrote about these things, made drawings, took photographs, made sculptures and models, and shot short films. I wrote my masters thesis on the subject of the Bungalow Bliss houses that were built throughout rural Ireland in great numbers through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, housing tens of thousands of families of young rural Irish people like me. While I was researching this material, I realised I was being drawn back via an education in fine art and art theory to two underlying fixations that I can’t shift: my parents’ house in County Longford, including its immediate surrounds, and the act of building.
In 2013, completely broke, my girlfriend, Niamh, our dog and I emigrated to Berlin. By this stage, my art career consisted of a few group shows a year and landing the odd artist residency. I had also had some short stories published in great places like The Dublin Review and The South Circular, which was then an e-publishing project set up by Aoife Walsh. I was also working as an editor of an Irish art journal called Paper Visual Art. Despite all of this activity, I felt indistinct as an artist and writer. I wrote and worked on projects in between stints of employment and felt like I was struggling to get a run at things. Then, in early 2014 I read a book called The Wrench by the Italian author Primo Levi. It was the first piece of fiction I had read where the narrator was an engineer (albeit a chemical engineer; Levi himself was a chemist). In the book this chemical engineer often meets with a rigger called Faussone whose job involves the building and dismantling of derricks and cranes. One is a man whose work is taken up with investigative theoretical trouble-shooting, and the other solves problems of a more hands-on and mechanical kind. The interactions and conversations between these characters in this book are as revelatory as they are gentle, and this novel told me then that it was possible to write accurately about technical things in a way that might be compelling for those who are not engineers or who are not ‘technically minded’.
That summer, Niamh and I along with our dog moved into an unfurnished apartment in northern Berlin. We often found furniture on the street and bought a few basic items for the house. One day in May I came across a lovely table and chair left on a street near our apartment. I lugged it home, and it was on this I wrote my first draft of Love Notes from a German Building Site. It’s a novel about a young engineer called Paul who follows his girlfriend to Berlin and begins work on a building site in the centre of the city. During Paul’s time on this job, he is thrust up against the chaotic daily tasks of construction while also wrestling with a new culture and a difficult language. The book is as much a story of emigration and learning a new language as it is a description of the hierarchies and frenzy of the contemporary building site. It is also a book about an engineer learning from these extremes some truths about himself and the people he loves.
The first draft of the book was written over the course of five weeks, but what followed was four years of redrafts, submissions, waiting, rejections, re-writings, hope, excitement, doubt and disappointment. This is when I learned about writing, by making countless mistakes and going in countless wrong directions – all the while trying to figure out what I was trying to say.
Readers of early drafts of manuscripts often offer excellent advice on what is not working, and I have benefited from the notes given to me by these generous readers, but ultimately you have to decide on your own what might work best and pursue that blind alley as far as you can. It’s what amounts to you learning your craft, I think. I got the sense, over this period of time, of what the weight of a text should be, almost what it should feel like in your hands, if you could hold such a thing. It’s this sense of mass and weight and feel that helps me now consider what form a text might take, especially when I am producing a piece of longer writing. I suppose this sense of touch stems from that period of time in the sculpture studio, back when I was embarking on these new ways of thinking.
(c) Adrian Duncan
Author photograph (c) F. Ward
About Love Notes from a German Building Site:
WINNER OF THE INAUGURAL JOHN MCGAHERN ANNUAL BOOK PRIZE, 2020
Love Notes from a German Building Site is written in spare, exact prose. Set mainly on a building site in Berlin, it captures the urgencies and exigencies of construction, as well as the close and strained personal relationships that develop between workers over time.
Duncan writes beautifully about cold weather, gruff manners, systems of hierarchy. He also writes beautifully about precious time off, or the occasions when memory takes over.
As well as being a portrait of work, this novel offers a picture of a sensibility – Paul, an Irishman in Berlin, conscientious, often uneasy, often bad-tempered, but ready to be transformed by his relationship with Evelyn, who travels with him, and by time spent in galleries.
At the heart of the novel is the question of language, German as a set of signs, but also the world itself as a set of signs waiting to be interpreted by the protagonist, who is created in this book with an acute and painstaking emotional accuracy.
Paul, a young Irish engineer, follows his girlfriend to Berlin, and begins work on the renovation of a commercial building in Alexanderplatz. Wrestling with a new language, on a site running behind schedule, and with a relationship in flux, he becomes increasingly untethered.
Set against the structural evolution of a sprawling city, this meditation on language, memory and yearning is underpinned by the site’s physical reality. As the narrator explores the mind’s fragile architecture, he begins to map his own strange geography through a series of notebooks, or ‘Love Notes’.
This is at once a treatise on language, memory, building and desire, relayed in translucent Sebaldian prose in a voice new to Irish fiction.
Adrian Duncan is a Berlin-based Irish visual artist who originally trained as a structural engineer. His short-form fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly, gorse, The Moth, The Dublin Review and Meridian (US), among others. His feature film on Irish engineer Peter Rice, co-directed with Feargal Ward, premiered at the Dublin International Film Festival 2019. His second novel A Sabbatical in Leipzig was published by The Lilliput Press in 2020.
Shortlisted for the Emerging Writer Award at the inaugural 2020 Dalkey Literary Awards.
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