Lilliput Press €15.00
Good books tend to remind me of other good books and, although they’re very different in almost every respect, A Sabbatical in Leipzig reminded me of two Julian Barnes books, both Flaubert’s Parrot and Levels of Life. The first Barnes book explores, among other things, obsession and grief and the second explores…well…obsession and grief. They are very different books and Duncan’s Sabbatical is different again, but the themes of obsession and grief stamp almost every page of Duncan’s novel, as his protagonist Michael is left completely alone after the death of Catherine, his partner of over forty years.
In Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes writes about grief: “And you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.” In Sabbatical, Duncan’s protagonist Michael says: “This is all I want from the city: that it allow me to forget. I don’t want to die in my apartment circling myself; I want to fall over here in the city, slump to the ground, expire among the shivering trees and be carried away by strangers.”
In Levels of Life, written some thirty or so years after Flaubert’s Parrot and writing about losing his own wife, Barnes writes: “When might you expect to be ‘over it’? The griefstruck themselves can hardly tell, since time is now so less measurable than it used to be.” In Sabbatical Duncan writes: “I thought that if I could put away the type of thinking I had employed before Catherine’s death I might then make room in my person for a type of thinking to help usher me beyond – and perhaps help me forget – the moment of her dying.”
Both writers instill their obsessions into their protagonists; Barnes with all things French, with Flaubert and other French writers, with French painters, and Duncan with all things German, with the German writer Robert Walser, with modern sculpture and, being an engineer, with the beauty and functionality of bridges. Barnes’ protagonist Geoffrey Braithwaite sets off in search of a stuffed parrot, said to have inspired Flaubert to write A Simple Heart, only to discover that there are fifty or so stuffed parrots, all apparently ‘the one’. Duncan’s protagonist Michael buys a second record player to match the one he already has, so he can play two very different interpretations of Schubert’s Trout Quintet ‘in synch’, as it were, only to find it’s not possible. Defeat – for Braithwaite and for Michael – is inevitable, it seems.
Michael’s story takes place in the hour between his early morning coffee and his venturing out into the streets of Bilbao, perhaps to drink coffee with a local he has half-befriended who cannot speak, or maybe not. His sense of abandonment is a solid thing, as solid as anything he has ever designed or constructed, and one cannot penetrate solid things. He recalls his childhood in the Irish midlands with fondness, although he never returned to live in Ireland after graduating. Now, with most of his family dead, “the systematic thinning-out of a church pew”, his only souvenirs of Ireland are a single photograph and, curiously, his father’s desk. His ‘sabbatical’ in Leipzig was, we discover as the story unfurls backwards, a kind of breakdown through which his beloved Catherine sustained him. After five years in Leipzig he became productive again. Now in Bilbao, without Catherine or a single other living soul, he faces his final days alone.
This short book is a haunted and haunting essay on loneliness. Michael’s meditations on engineering, art and (some) German literature and music fill just a single hour of his unrelenting day. But it’s a memorable hour for the reader. The excruciating solitude of this character lingers long after the last few harrowing pages.