By late spring 2018 I had begun work with my friend Feargal Ward on a film about Peter Rice, an important Irish structural engineer who helped design and construct buildings like the Centre Pompidou, the Sydney Opera House, Lloyds Bank, and The Pavilion of the Future. In 1992, the year before he died, Rice wrote a book called An Engineer Imagines. It’s one of my favourite works of non-fiction by an Irish person. It details his experiences in the construction industry and is thought to be a bible of late-twentieth-century design.
One day at the beginning of this film project, to help get things going, I wrote a couple of thousand words through the eyes of a retired engineer standing at the kitchen window of his apartment looking at sunlight reflecting off the windows across a courtyard, which I sent to Feargal. He responded later that afternoon saying that he reckoned this approach would probably not work for the film. I was disappointed, but those six or seven pages had come easily, so I returned to the engineer looking out his kitchen window. I continued writing for a further five weeks, and what emerged was the first draft of my second novel, A Sabbatical in Leipzig. I am pretty sure this book would not exist had the opening text been used in our film.
My first novel (Love Notes from a German Building Site) is told from the point of view of a young Irish engineer working on a building site in Berlin. It comes from the world of sweat, dust, noise, and long and often dehumanising hours of physical labour. A Sabbatical in Leipzig belongs to another side of the world of construction – the engineer’s design-and-draughting office. This side of engineering involves different types of materials, methods and thoughts, and because Michael, the narrator, worked in a time before computers began dominating engineering, the materials consist of things like clutch pencils, masking tape, set squares, drawing boards, logarithmic tables, blueprints, ammonia printers, inking pens and tracing paper.
When I worked as an engineer, I regularly attended design team meetings which almost always included a structural engineer, a builder, an architect and a quantity surveyor. In these meetings, ideas were translated most often with small sketches on shreds of paper, over which conversations were carried out as to how these details might be designed and built. One of the pieces of advice in Rice’s book relating to meetings of this kind goes against my experiences in the industry. He believed a design-team meeting should hold off from using sketches of any kind for as long as possible to allow the ideas and details being spoken about to be imagined differently in each person’s mind. Rice reckoned that if these private visualisations could develop independently for longer, then it would be more likely for a greater variety of images to emerge – images that are related but different.
Over the course of writing this novel I began thinking more closely about tracing paper itself. It is a heavy and translucent material which I had used often while studying engineering in the mid-nineties and during my first few years of working in the industry. Then, by the early-2000s, the computer-drawing printout had taken hold in structural engineering and I forgot about tracing paper. While I was writing the novel I realised that Michael had a deep appreciation of the clarity and style of the hand-draughted technical drawing, and as the novel progressed to completion, I began to think of the novel itself as a drawing on tracing paper and that my role in all of this was merely to hold aloft this sheet to the reader showing them the emerging design. I began to think, then, that if a reader is on one side of the tracing paper looking at the line-drawing design upon it, that the figure on the other side would be indistinct and secondary. I thought this was an interesting way to illustrate the nature of the novel itself – an interface presenting a type of clarity while also making apparent the morphing and shifting patterns and colours of the writer beneath.
(c) Adrian Duncan
Note: The film work I directed with Feargal Ward became a feature-length documentary entitled Floating Structures. It was first screened at the VMDIFF in 2019 and a version of it called Tension Structures received its world premiere at IDFA in Amsterdam last November. This film was funded by the Arts Council’s Reel Art fund. More information and trailers here: http://www.adrianduncan.eu/floating-structures
Adrian Duncan’s second novel A Sabbatical in Leipzig is published by The Lilliput Press.
About A Sabbatical in Leipzig:
Michael, a retired engineer, has lived away from Ireland for most of his life and now resides alone in Bilbao after the death of his girlfriend, Catherine. Each day he listens to two versions of the same piece of music before walking the same route to visit Richard Serra’s enormous permanent installation, The Matter of Time, in the Guggenheim Museum. Over the course of 45 minutes before he leaves his apartment, Michael reflects on past projects and how they have endured, the landscape of his adolescence, and his relationship with Catherine, which acts as the marker by which he judges the passing of time.
Over the course of the narrative, certain fascinations crop up: electricity, porcelain, the bogland of his youth, a short story by Robert Walser, and a five-year period of prolonged mental agitation spent in Leipzig with Catherine. This `sabbatical’, caused by the stress of his job and the suicide of a former colleague, splits his career as an engineer into two distinct parts.
A Sabbatical in Leipzig is intensely realistic, mapped out like Michael’s intricate drawings. With a clear voice and precise, structured thoughts, we are brought from an empty landscape to envision the creation of structures in cities across Europe, from London to Leipzig and Bilbao. This narrator has left the void of his world in rural Ireland to build new environments elsewhere, yet remains connected to his homeland. Duncan’s second novel stands alone as a substantial and compelling work of literary fiction.
Order your copy online here.