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Pattern recognition and the periodic table.

By Alan Wall.

Mendelyeev begins ordering the elements, 1869. Image: Eric Scarri, OUP.

Mendelyeev begins sorting the elements, 1869. Image: Eric Scarri, OUP.

WE FIND OUR way through complication, or even apparent chaos, by pattern recognition. If we are working according to tradition, then it will be routine pattern recognition. If we are involved in discovery, then it is radical pattern recognition. We are finding something new, rather than merely confirming something old. We creatures of modernity are painfully aware that the paradigm structuring our perceptions can facilitate discovery, but can also prevent it.

The Ptolemaic system in its latter stages had to complicate itself to a remarkable degree (with additional epicycles and such-like) in order to save the appearances while holding on to the paradigm. Once the paradigm shifted to a heliocentric one, there was a radical simplification. The epicycles disappeared. This was an example of how the paradigm can block pattern recognition by falsifying the actual significance of the patterns being observed. But the paradigm can also release knowledge of phenomena that have never yet been observed at all.

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Dmitri Mendelyeev predicted the existence of new elements (including germanium) and he also predicted their characteristics; he was right, and it was the architectonics of his own system which facilitated the discovery. He located unknown phenomena through the interstices, the symmetric patterns, of his model. The Dirac equation predicted the existence of anti-matter, and Dirac’s maths were proved right when a positron was detected some years later.

Does literary and artistic form allow such discoveries? Or to put the matter another way, does the artistic representation ever cease being instrumentally representative, and become instead autonomously heuristic? Can its architectonics allow discoveries produced out of its own form, the same way that Mendelyeev encountered the reality of his own new elements, before anyone had ever actually encountered such elements in nature? By examining the construction of the periodic table by Mendelyeev, and the writing of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, I will try to explore some of the implications of these questions.

PATTERN RECOGNITION IS most easily detectable in aberration. King Lear on encountering Mad Tom, naked and raving, asks if his daughters have brought him to this pass; in other words, he now sees reality as so irredeemably patterned by filial ingratitude and viciousness that the whole world simply presents itself to him in such a guise. There is a South Sea cargo cult that still worships Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and awaits his second coming. The logic of the pattern recognition here is impeccable: out of the sky came a great metal bird; out of that stepped a man taller than any of them, and with a far fairer skin, wearing an immaculate white suit that blazed in the sun. During his sojourn from heaven he distributed gifts among them here on earth. Then the great metal bird took him back to that heaven where he lives with the most powerful queen ever known. Since then, they have awaited the blessing of his return, and the cornucopia of good things he will doubtless once more distribute amongst them during that wished-for millennium.

Patterns can be delusive, then. But the total absence of pattern means chaos; we cannot find our way about. What mythology shows us is that we have always provided ourselves with patterns; as a species we have a genius for mapping ourselves on to the cosmos. And what religion and politics show us is that when observed reality contradicts scripture, tradition or ideology, we are usually as ready to re-arrange our observations as we are to question the credal patterns of our sanctioned taxonomies.

The periodic table is a luminous example of how we observe nature through our own modelling of it. After all, there is no such ‘table’ to be observed in nature, and no one has ever thought there was. This diagrammatic symbolization of the inter-relations between different aspects of matter presents us with a representation of the fundamental elements we can detect in nature. Why such radically different elements as neon and sodium should sit next to each other in such a table was inexplicable at the time the table was being constructed; it took the discoveries of quantum physics to establish how the constellations of particles inside the atom, their ordering in certain groupings and in certain orbits, bestow on them either stability or instability. They are either avid for union with other elements or compounds, which is to say lively and active, or they are inert, noble even, not to be tempted into any easy marriage, certainly not a morganatic one. It is impossible to describe such atomic situations without metaphor.

Mendeleev in 1897. Image: Wiki.The seven groups into which Mendelyeev arranged the elements, on cards pinned to his wall, allowed for the perception of pattern; individual patterns and overall patterns. Active metals like sodium, rubidium and potassium belonged to one group, the first; active non-metals like iodine and chlorine could be seen to belong to another group entirely, the seventh.

A pattern is a kind of rhyme. Or to turn the perception around, rhyming itself is a species of pattern recognition, and Dryden was explicit in saying that he had often found the idea while hunting for the rhyme; so here we have one of those paradigmatic generations: out of the model itself and its exploration comes the unanticipated discovery. Routine rhyming, as with all routine pattern recognition, simply confirms what we already knew. Trite verse is all too good at reminding us that moon rhymes with June and both of them with soon. At the radical edge of the activity we have a poet like Paul Muldoon, a rhymer of genius, who produces the frisson of registering in our minds that ankle rhymes with tranquil. Bob Dylan also had this uncanny gift for aural pattern recognition, rhyming ‘Let the boys in’ with ‘It’s not poison’. His pronunciation helps. At the beginning of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew we are told that there was waste and darkness over the deep, and the words used to convey that patternless chaos actually rhyme: tohu wabohu. Out of such coherent incoherence God sees patterns arising, and makes them emerge with his breath, his ruah, his spirit of order and redemption. Light is summoned, and then it is divided from darkness; heaven is divided from earth; the land from the ocean. God had seen the order inherent in the tohu wabohu, as Michelangelo told us the sculptor sees the shape inherent in the marble.

Until a few hundred years ago, the usual means of diagnosing the personality was by mapping how the elements of the macrocosm, earth, water, fire and air, expressed themselves in the microcosm of the human mind and body. The balances or imbalances between these fundamentals dictated the balance of your humours, which is to say whether you were phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine or melancholy. But modern science has discovered that these ‘elements’ were not in fact elemental. We now have Mendelyeev’s periodic table instead, to direct us to what the truly elemental components of nature are. In employing the periodic table as a grid in which to locate all matter, including human personality and historic context, Levi found a formal device which is creatively generative; all artistic and literary form – unless it is moribund – should be creatively generative to one degree or another. In the 1960s Dylan found that  the form of the popular song, allied to the riches of the folk tradition, and crossed with literature as diverse as Shakespeare and Rimbaud, opened up for him a space in which to work, a space which no one had ever opened up in that way before. The songs permitted the discovery of surrealistic symmetries.

The periodic table, for students. Image: fashionably geek.comSo Levi behaves as though he were a sixteenth-century physician and astrologer, employing the humours in the analysis of humanity and its discontents, except that it is our modern understanding of the elements out of which he constructs his metaphoric grid. One of the things that is so extraordinary about The Periodic Table is the way in which Levi could construct such a delightful taxonomy of human morphology during a period in history when his place in the human (or inhuman) taxonomies of Europe was actually destining him for extermination.

Levi started writing the full version of The Periodic Table in 1973, though he had published a section of it long before in 1948 – this was the titanium chapter. The book covered the years 1935 to 1967, and the knowledge transmuted and structured into it covered the whole of Levi’s life. It was finally published as a book in 1975.

Science, Metaphor and the ‘Freedom of the Writer’

WHAT IS THE relationship of the writing of science to the writing of fiction and poetry? We can see that the first books of Paradise Lost could not have been written as they are without the work of Galileo in establishing the vastness of space. We can see that certain lines of Alexander Pope could not have been written without Newton’s work on optics. But what is the relation between that which is discovered in science and what is written on the page by someone called a novelist or poet? If a contemporary poet writes of his woman as the only fixed star in his firmament, I am entitled to respond by saying that this would not be difficult, since there are no actual fixed stars out there for the beloved to compete with.

Hamlet and King Lear are both about heroes who are trying to get to the heart of things; to find out what’s what. Hamlet wants to know what it is to be a man, and a son, since these two conditions are for him inseparable. Lear wants to know what nature is; he had thought nature was that all-controlling power which guaranteed the loyalty of children to their parents. He finds that this is not the case. Nature begins to seem much more like Edmund’s goddess: brutal, rapacious, quite unsentimental about custom and tradition, closer to Darwin’s nature than Hooker’s. Legitimacy here is not about which womb you were conceived in or when, but the extent of your power and cunning. Hamlet’s father comes from another world, since he comes out of Purgatory, which had been abolished in England over half a century before. But he also comes from another world in the sense that he is an emissary from a revenge tragedy, and Hamlet does not live in such a world of vengeance and vendetta. His Renaissance humanism cannot be dovetailed into that earlier world in which act is cancelled so symmetrically by counter-act.

At the same moment that these explorations of the nature of things were proceeding, Francis Bacon was also trying to get to the heart of things, and to express his discoveries in the plainest possible language, but he was aware that nature is a labyrinth, and that it does not readily disclose its secrets, but needs to be interrogated with vigour. The forensic metaphor is apt; Bacon was a lawyer, indeed for a while he was the highest lawyer in the land. He also fell foul of the law, in circumstances which are disputed to this day. Are Bacon’s exploration into the nature of things comparable to Shakespeare’s? Are Primo Levi’s exploration into the nature of things in The Periodic Table comparable to Mendelyeev’s in constructing the periodic table? We are suspended in language, according to Niels Bohr, but are we also suspended in form? Is the nature of reality perceived in Hamlet or Lear different in kind from that in Bacon’s Essays? Is the language doing something fundamentally different?

There is no mention of the works of Shakespeare in Bacon; nor any reference to Bacon in Shakespeare. For Baconians this is simply explained: they were one and the same person. For the rest of us, it is not so straightforward. Would Shakespeare have been interested in Bacon’s essays? Would Bacon have been interested in Shakespeare’s plays? It is chastening to remember that after his return from the Galapagos, Darwin soon found that he couldn’t read poetry any more, even though Paradise Lost had once been one of his favourite books, and had accompanied him on the Beagle voyage, along with Lyell’s Principles of Geology. The work we are obliged to do in language sometimes precludes certain usages of language still open to others.

Paul Celan. A passport photo from 1938. Image: WikiADORNO FAMOUSLY ANNOUNCED that there could be no lyric poetry after Auschwitz. What he meant was that the spirit of lyric celebration, the litany of luminous delight at the heart of the lyric impulse, had been cancelled by the goings-on inside the camps. Humanity could never sing so freely again. One form of literary language was no longer available to anyone with a remaining shred of respect for the intelligent use of words; it would be like playing the banjo at the deathbed of a child. But then Adorno encountered the poetry of Paul Celan, and he changed his mind. What happened here was that Celan redefined lyric poetry for Adorno; it was no longer celebration of anything but the remorseless instinct to examine language from the inside, with ruthless intellectual vigour. There is such gravity to Celan’s celebration of language that it is always and everywhere an act of universal  mourning for the great, the irreparable, loss.

Levi included Celan in his book The Search for Roots, published posthumously. That book also included De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. The nature of things is the title, and the poem seeks to discover and expound it. What is the nature of things, asks Lucretius in verse. What is the cause of thunder, asks Lear on the heath. He also asks a question even more germane to his situation: what is the cause in nature of these hard hearts? The answer he receives is provided by the plot, rather than any speech: the loyalty of Kent, the companionship of the Fool, and the love of the exiled Cordelia. The question is never healed by the answers, and by the end of the play Lear, Cordelia and the Fool are all dead. So what is the nature of things, then? Francis Bacon was discovering it when he acquired a dead hen, bought from a poor woman at the bottom of Highgate Hill, and stuffed it full of snow, to see if refrigeration would have the same effect as salt, and delay putrefaction. The snow badly chilled him, and he repaired to the Earl of Arundel’s house at Highgate, where according to Aubrey he was put into a good bed with a pan, but it was damp bed, unused for a year. Two or three days later he is said to have died of suffocation, which probably means he contracted pneumonia. The nature of things does not always invite inspection without penalty. Bacon had been interrogating nature for a long time; nature finally took her revenge.

But is there a fundamental difference between the use of language in scientific discourse and the use of language in fiction or poetry?

Model, Form and Exactitude of Usage

DIFFERENT TYPES OF literary formality permit different types of pattern recognition. One of the satisfactions of satire, for example, is the discovery of a pattern where it had previously remained unobserved by us. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust finds a perfectly symmetric pattern of desire balanced by betrayal throughout the narrative and characterisation. Tony Last is comprehensively betrayed by his wife Brenda at the beginning of the novel; and comprehensively betrayed by the Dickens-obsessed Mr Todd at the end. Brenda betrays Tony and is betrayed in her turn by her young lover John Beevor, whose mother connives in the betrayal. She it is who arranges the flat in London where the adultery might take place; she it is who becomes the subcontractor for the obelisk set up in Tony’s memory at the end of the book. Jock appears to be a true friend to Tony, but when it is supposed that Tony is finally dead, he it is who inherits Brenda. Brenda has loved one John (her adulterous lover) altogether too much. The other John (her young son) received far too little love from her, and dies. We can discern here a pattern recognition, a symmetric arrangement, as architectonic in its own way as the minuscule and majuscule worlds of Lilliput and Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.  There is a kind of ‘truth’ to these observations, or the novel would not engage us to the extent that it does. The verisimilitude is dependent on form; form in literature dictates usage. Usage can also decay into imprecision and convention when form has become the mere repetition of itself, to no purpose other than filling up the silence.

Swift we know was an avid reader of the The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and satirised the ‘literalist imperative’ in the Academy at Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels. The notion that language could ever consist of a single unambiguous word with one unquestionable referent is mocked in the image of the Lagado academicians who carry a bag full of all the objects to which they might need to refer. Such unilateral referentiality, Swift was well aware, is a dream based on insufficient thought about what it is that language actually does, and language’s inescapable implication in the fecund world of metaphor. The whole of Gulliver’s Travels is on the stylistic level a mocking of the linguistic pretensions of the Royal Society, its wish to return to a golden age of plainness of usage and the banishment of ambiguity.

Frontispeice to Thomas Sprat's A History of the Royal Society. 1667. Francis Bacon, right. Image: WikiLET US TRY to clarify a field of force here. If there were an anode and a cathode to the circuitry of arguments about metaphor then at the near end we have the longed-for literalism and plainness of style of Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society. Words should refer to one thing and one thing only. All ambiguity should be banished; it constitutes not enrichment but confusion. At the far end we have the notion, expressed by Owen Barfield among others, that language is inherently metaphorical and polysemous, and that ‘the literal’ is merely a late attempt at disambiguation. Now one argument regarding tropes is that all figurative language is a species of catachresis, and catachresis means misuse. Thus Johnson’s Dictionary has this to say of metaphor: ‘The application of a word to an use to which, in its original import, it cannot be put: as, he bridles his anger; he deadens the sound; the spring awakes the flowers.’ And the entry on metaphorical tells us: ‘Not literal; not according to the primitive meaning of the word.’ So catachresis distorts the ‘original import’ and deviates from the ‘primitive meaning’.  And yet Johnson’s own examples must surely alert us to the fact that, as Wittgenstein put it, the English language is a graveyard of dead metaphors. I may be a freelance writer. Well then, I am evidently related to those free lancers who were the mercenary soldiers of the Middle Ages. Perhaps I embrace the metaphor proudly and quote Voltaire to the effect that the pen is mightier than the sword. We should at least remember the Irish riposte: the pen is lighter than the spade. Or perhaps I feel I have just had a breakthrough. Good: the original usage here was the Daily Express in 1918 – the Allied troops had just broken through the German defences. Or maybe my new work is groundbreaking, as William James evidently thought when he used the word in its modern form for the first time in a letter of 1907. We are a long way from digging up a hole for the foundations, and even further from the original ‘breaking the ground’, which was the dragging of the anchor over the seabed.

No, there is no escape from metaphor, and therefore no escape from catachresis, even if we are required to disambiguate into the literal from time to time. The literal is itself a metaphor, meaning going by the letter. If we want primitive meaning, then the literal can only apply to texts; only that which spells itself out can be read literally, but riddling the literal meanings here, we shall find metaphors.

And the alternative? The alternative appears to be a world of interminable interconnection. It is what Coleridge thought was the realm of the imagination: he gave it the name ‘esemplastic’ a drawing together of all disparities into unity. This is the world where ambiguity is not a confusion but rather a proliferation of meaning. This is the world of the Doctrine of Signatures, where every object and being in the cosmos signifies itself through shape, scent, medical appliance. This is the world of Baudelaire’s correspondences, a late return upon the Great Chain of Being. It is also the world of Finnegans Wake, where words refuse to remain in the compartments of their languages and climb out once more to intermarry with the words from all the other languages. It is most certainly the world of Shakespeare. ‘That time of year thou may’st in me behold’ he says. It would be a curiously cloth-eared reader who said, ‘But you’re an Elizabethan man, not a movement of the earth round the sun, or a calendar.’

So usage is dictated by form, not etymology. We can now return to our question: is there a fundamental difference between the use of language in science and that in fiction and poetry?

Carbon atom.THE FINAL CHAPTER of The Periodic Table is the one devoted to the carbon atom. If we examine this chapter carefully we will see that some aspects of its language are taken from geology – the notion of deposits and strata – but a large part is surely taken from the notion of the migrating bird, one that has been ringed, so that we might track it. Levi actually writes at one point: ‘We will let it fly three times around the world, until 1960.’ Levi’s dates, as he happily admits, are arbitrary. They are also meaningless. History does not exist in the atomic and sub-atomic world. There is an epistemological sleight-of-hand going on here, for the sake of the narrative, and it is hard to tell just how far Levi was aware of it, and precisely how much it troubled him. He certainly seems a little uneasy at one point, when he says: ‘Is it right to speak of a “particular” atom of carbon? For the chemist there exist some doubts, because until 1970 he did not have the techniques permitting him to see, or in any event isolate, a single atom; no doubts exist for the narrator, who therefore sets out to narrate.’ So here we appear to have come across a moment of clear separation between scientific usage, and the freer usage of the writer. But what can this actually mean?

Levi’s is a great book, and this is no attempt to disparage it, but he himself would have been the first to acknowledge the need for precision in thought; the whole of The Periodic Table is a plea for precision in thought and expression. That, he implies, is the only possibility of redemption we have. Without it, you’ll get fascism. So what does it mean then to set out to narrate in a world where narrative does not in fact obtain? It is a tenet of the world of quantum mechanics that we can only track atoms and particles within a specific field of observation. We cannot track them outside that field because in the atomic world there is no retention of identity, and therefore no history. There are only locations, quantities and states.

A practised astronomer could look at a picture of our moon and distinguish it from any one of the moons of Jupiter. Why? Because the celestial bodies retain identity; they are historical. Every collision up there that has been registered by a crater, every protruberance, tells one that here is this moon, not that one. This is not possible in the atomic realm. Whatever collisions take place, whatever distortions of the atomic structure there have been, once the atom regains its original identity, it is indistinguishable from any other atom of the same sort in the same state in the universe. And that is why it is only possible to speak of ‘this atom’ within a trackable field of observation, which is to say a specified apparatus. Outside that, one carbon atom is the same as any other. That is why Niels Bohr insisted that the apparatus must count as part of the phenomenon.

We can only speak of the atomic world as a world of statistics and probabilities. There is not, and cannot be, any dynamic or individual model on the grand scale; the science does not permit it. So, this life as re-constituted and narrated in The Periodic Table, as taken back into its origins way back then and its history more recently, is actually spurious. The ‘life’ of this atom is being told as though there were as much a retention of identity in the micro-world as there is in the macro one, but in fact there isn’t. The terms of memory and history do not apply. We are applying the concept of ‘story’ to a dimension of material reality where stories don’t obtain, because the discrete occurrences of matter in this realm, which we call particles or atoms, do not retain identity. They dissolve into statistical realities, not dynamic ones. The interesting question then is, do we do this simply because it is impossible for us not to? Because of the narrative requirements of the human imagination? Has our story-telling urge become, during the course of our evolution, effectively instinctual and unavoidable? Once again, Levi is evidently aware that the process of visualisation of the atomic world is essentially metaphoric: ‘If to comprehend is the same as forming an image, we will never form an image of a happening whose scale is a millionth of a millimetre, whose rhythm is a millionth of a second, and whose protagonists are in their essence invisible. Every verbal description must be inadequate, and one will be as good as the next…’  Coleridge wrote in a letter of 1800: ‘A whole Essay might be written on the Danger of thinking without Images.’ The problem is that a whole essay might be written on the danger of thinking with them, too.

Primo Levi. Image: pwf.czLEVI MOST SIGNIFICANTLY ascribes agency to the carbon atom: ‘…it is the only atom that can bind itself in long stable chains without a great expense of energy…’ This is a subject making choices: this is the classic impresario of a narrative. The figure of biography so overwhelms this reality, which in truth can only be scientifically spoken of in terms of statistics and probabilities, locations, velocities, quantities  and states, that the disparate natures of the macro and the micro world become irremediably confused. It is of course this confusion, however deliberated or unconscious, which permits and enables the narrative. Another name for such confusion could be metaphor, or in this instance a whole congeries of metaphors. Metaphor is pattern recognition expressing itself in the fabric of language. The question, as ever, is do such visualizing and chronicling metaphors truly help us approach the reality of the sub-atomic world, or in effect do they simply remove us even further from it, while still permitting us the luxury of our narrative? Are we employing narrative at the expense of understanding scientific reality? In one sense, to be applying narratives like this to the atomic and sub-atomic realm is to misuse all formal proprieties which apply to the matter in hand, but we seem to find it unavoidable.

The metaphors applied to the atomic realm in most scientific writings will usually have a number of functions: they will permit visualization of that which is not in fact visualizable, and they will permit the recounting of a narrative in a realm, statistical and probabilistic, where narrative itself dissolves in numbers. They will invariably be uni-directional – out of sub-atomic realities and into the world of classical physics and Newtonian mechanics, into a reality that can be seen and followed. What the constant application of metaphor to atomic physics inform us most eloquently is this: we are creatures with a relentless compulsion towards narrative. We shape the data into images and tales. Even our accounts of science are fashioned by Coleridge’s esemplastic power, the urge to fashion the disparate items into unities, to unite the realms. The disenchantments of modern science, the disintegration of our unities, the attempted literalisation of our myths and legends, all produce a return of the repressed, in the form of metaphor and narrative. We want it both ways. And insofar as we allow the ‘play’ between scientific and narrative language in The Periodic Table we get to have it both ways.

In the quantum world the wave is a visualization of the relationship between contingency and causality. The wave is a statistical envisioning of what must happen, given sufficient time and space, and in quantum mechanics, if it can happen, then it must. The quantum world, unlike the individual biography, never runs out of time. Now we can never say of this individual photon in the double-slit experiment: it will arrive here or there with the next emission. But give us enough photons, give us a sufficiency of data, and we will see the pattern of the wave, though it is a statistical wave, emerging. Bohr once called it a ‘cloud of probability’. Contingency once-off might be called accident, since it is that which is neither necessary nor impossible. Physics insists that a contingency repeated often enough becomes a causality that can be expressed statistically, and in the form of the multiple ‘journeys’ made by photons such statistics express themselves in the form of a wave.

Light, metaphorically.TO DESCRIBE THE behaviour of light as a wave is of course to transfer terms from one form of perception, one medium – water – to another, in this case light. A metaphor, as we have seen, represents a type of pattern recognition. We say the keels plough the waves because we have noticed the similarity between a plough’s motion through the earth and a keel’s through water. And here too we have noticed certain characteristics of the behaviour of waves through liquid: interference and diffraction, for instance. Observing similar processes in the superimposition taking place with light directed through two slits we recognise the pattern, we carry over the perception: we speak metaphorically of waves. Then the metaphor becomes a scientific observation. These days we are just as likely to speak of light waves or sound waves as marine waves. The metaphor has become fact. There is a curious footnote here in terms of waves and pattern recognition. The form ‘wave’ was only used for the first time in 1526 in Tyndale’s translation of the Bible: ‘For he that douteth is lyke the waues.’ Prior to that the form was ‘waw’. Now the interesting thing about ‘waw’ is that it is a palindrome. Although no wave is in fact entirely reversible, because of the law of entropy, the regularity of waves allows us to speak of their frequency and length, and this characteristic of symmetric patterning had in fact been captured by the original structure of the word. The store of language is a store of vast intelligence. We live amongst these metaphors, whether dead or alive.

Metaphor is in permanent dialectic with technology, and the extremities of perception which technology facilitates, which change from age to age. In the seventeenth century the development of the telescope and the microscope expanded the human imagination at both the macro and the micro level. The great vision of falling bodies which opens Paradise Lost would not have been possible without Galileo’s development of the telescope. Milton himself pays tribute to Galileo in Book One. The science was soon incorporated into the narrative. No one would dispute this in terms of Paradise Lost. The curious thing is that, if we look closely, it is also true of The Periodic Table. No instinct, it seems, is stronger in us than the narrative one; that is why we resist death so fiercely. We want to carry on with the story.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books. and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.


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