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Old age and literary immortality

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. 2004 French title: Exit le fantôme.

I was learning at seventy-one what it is to be deranged. Proving that self-discovery wasn’t over after all. Proving that the drama that is associated usually with the young as they fully begin to enter life – with adolescents, with young men like the steadfast captain in The Shadow-Line—can also startle and lay siege to the aged (including the aged resolutely armed against all drama), even as circumstances readies them for departure.

Maybe the most potent discoveries are reserved for last.

Exit Ghost is our Book Club choice for July. I’ve already read several Roths, The Plot Against America, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain and The Breast.  Exit Ghost is the last of the Nathan Zuckerman series, Roth’s literary doppelgänger.

In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman Zuckerman has been living like a hermit in Berkshire for the last ten years. – Note to self: there seem to be an American myth about hermit authors writing books in cabins in remote parts of the country. A Thoreau syndrome? Like a French poet is maudit or is not? So Zuckerman has been working, reading and staying away from newspapers and public life for a solid decade. He’s seventy-one, had a prostate cancer ten years ago and has been incontinent and impotent since his prostatectomy. He’s now returning to New York to see a famous urologist and have collagen injection in his bladder in the hope to regain some control over it. Back to New York, he’s caught up with city life and finds himself excited by the prospect of living again a normal life, ie without wearing plastic briefs and changing urine pads.

In the country, there was nothing tempting my hope. I had made peace with my hope. But when I came to New York, in only hours New York did what it does to people – awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.

His past life springs to his face when he comes across Amy Bellette in the hospital. She has a brain tumor and no longer looks like the young woman she used to be. Zuckerman first met her in the 1950s, when she was Lonoff’s lovely lover. Lonoff is one of Zuckerman’s favourite writers. Then our hero comes through an ad in a newspapers for a home swap; a young couple of writers, Billy and Jamie want to spend a year in the country and Zuckerman is up for spending a year in New York. He meets them and feels attracted by Jamie in a romantic way that seemed to belong to his past more than to his present or future. After he bought used copies of Lonoff’s work in a bookshop, he is contacted by Kliman, a young writer who intends to write Lonoff’s biography and pretends to have a copy of his unfinished novel and to know juicy details of his past life.

While the first part of the book explores old age and how it blows human dignity with a sledge hammer, the second part is stressed on Zuckerman’s reaction to young Kliman willing to write a biography of his literary hero Lonoff. In the first part, Roth describes the physical decline of his characters, both Zuckerman and Amy. I found these passages very poignant: Zuckerman’s problems with his bladder, how he feels that his memory is failing him, that sooner or later he won’t be able to write any more. He also depicts his coming back to New York and the changes in America: the cell phones, the women’s clothes. I need to mention that Roth wrote this novel in 2004 and his analysis of the second election of G. W. Bush proves his lucidity and his capacity to analyse the society and events while living them. He’s brilliant when it comes to describing America.

Oddly, Roth joins Maugham in his thought about a writer’s posterity. Indeed, Kliman discovered a scandalous story in Lonoff’s life and intends to use it for Lonoff’s biography. Zuckerman is totally against it, arguing that this will write in stone a certain image of Lonoff, hiding his work while only his literary work matters. In a word, Zuckerman wants that Lonoff’s skeleton remains in its closet just as in Cakes and Ale Ashenden refuses to tell Kear the controversial side of the Driffield he knew.

Both Roth and Maugham deplore that other writers try to create an official vision of a writer. As a biographer they choose the episode of the writer’s life they emphasise, either revealing dirty secrets or concealing them. Kliman argues that his biography will give publicity to Lonoff’s work and that his work won’t be as forgotten as it is now. Kliman wants to bring readers of the biography to Lonoff’s work and Zuckerman is sure that these readers, if they ever decide to read a novel by Lonoff, will read it with the filter of the biography. I agree with Zuckerman/Roth; for example, it is hard to read Céline without thinking about his anti-Semitic outbursts. That’s also why I tend to read things about a writer after reading their book and not before.

And Zuckerman, old and heading to death, feeling his faculties declining, can’t help wondering who will protect his privacy when he’s dead. Who will stop biographers to write his life and impose their imperfect vision of him as the Truth? That’s an intriguing thought. I’m not interested in writers’ biographies. I never read any, I hardly browse through their bio on Wikipedia. In that I’m not a thorough writer. I know reading about a writer’s life helps understanding their work but I don’t like for their personal life to come as a screen between their work and me. I want to start a novel without being prejudiced. Am I Roth’s dream reader? The one who never reads journalists’ reviews, writers interviews or bios? Alas no, I’m a book blogger…

Exit Ghost manages to mix Zuckerman’s different layers of perception. He scrutinises his own fragility and envisions the end of his life. That’s for the “man-size” vision. Then there’s his vision of society, his analysis of contemporary America. That’s the “outside of my garden” layer. The last layer is that of immortality. Can you control your immortality? How do you ensure that your immortality only comes from your work and not from your personal life? Thomas Hardy tried to control his image: he had his wife write his biography and I understand that he prompted most of it to her. Just as Driffield in Maugham’s novel, he organised his immortality. Zuckerman isn’t there yet but he sure wonders what posterity has in store for him.

His conflict with Kliman is also his inner conflict between his lost young self and his current old one. Kliman is the image of what he used to be.

All of us [his generation] are now “no-longers” while the excited mind of Richard Kliman believes that his heart, his knees, his cerebrum, his prostate, his bladder, his bladder sphincter, his everything is indestructible and that he, and he alone, is not in the hands of his cells. Believing this is no soaring achievement for those who are twenty-eight, certainly not if they know themselves to be beckoned by greatness. They are not “no-longers”, losing faculties, losing control, shamefully dispossessed from themselves, marked by deprivation and experiencing the organic rebellion staged by the body against the elderly; they are “not-yets”, with no idea how quickly things turn out another way.

I wonder if Philip Roth is aware that a French Jew wrote a book entitled Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable and that its ageing character Jacques Rainier is Zuckerman’s older brother with his analysis of the 1973 oil crisis, his erection problems and his immense love for a very young woman. And that this writer committed suicide not to face old age.

As always, I love Roth for his style, his bluntness, his sense of humour, his capacity to turn Zuckerman’s problems into universal issues. There’s no pathos, just thorough and brutal description of someone’s declining health and faculties. Roth’s strength lays in his ability to follow a character’s inner life and every day life in his most intimate details and at the same time to discuss universal issues. Great book.

Brian from Babbling Books read it recently and you can discover his thoughtful review here.

  1. July 15, 2012 at 1:53 am

    You know that I tried Portnoy’s Complaint and didn’t like it, but your love of Roth comes through and convinces me I need to retry him at some point.

    The passages about biography raise so many issues. I’ve read a number of film star bios in which things that may or may not have happened have been set in stone by one book. A few years ago, I read a bio about Barbara Payton, called Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by John O’Dowd. That was the title of her biggest film but it also could have been the title of her life. At one point she was a promising star and made 10,000 a week then a few years later she was a prostitute on skid row. Not a happy story and one that lends itself to sensationalism. The author very carefully probed into some of the stories and asked various sources if they thought this or that was true, and then left it up to the reader to decide. I found this to be a very fair approach and essential given the controversy surrounding Payton.

    I think it must be tough if you are famous–can’t say I blame Hardy’s approach at all. I read another bio about Susan Hayward in which a large part of the negativity came from relatives she helped out–but not generously enough apparently.

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    • July 16, 2012 at 11:07 pm

      You read a lot more of biographies than me. (I must have read 10, including two of Romain Gary) I don’t know why I’m not that interested into a writer’s life. I’d rather read their books.
      It must be difficult to write a biography, especially when the person’s relatives, friends and all are still alive. If you stick too close to facts, your reader gets bored. If you elaborate too much, you become unfaithful.

      Like

  2. July 15, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Just looked up Nathan Zuckerman and came up with the character of Eve Frame as a thinly disguised Claire Bloom (Roth’s X). Apparently she wasn’t very flattering about Roth in her memoir,so perhaps the novel Exit Ghost is inspired by/addressing that?

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    • July 16, 2012 at 11:10 pm

      See what I meant! You had the desire to look for this and check out about Roth. I didn’t even occur to me to do it. But you’re right, perhaps it’s a pay back. I don’t know in which book there is an Eva Frame. I’ll discover it later, in the end, I will read all the Zuckerman series.

      PS: About Portnoy’s Complaint, I thought it very funny.

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      • July 17, 2012 at 3:48 am

        I went looking to see the sequence of Zuckerman books. Well I probably would have looked anyway.

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        • July 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm

          It’s helpful when you leave comments about the writer’s life.

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      • July 17, 2012 at 3:59 am

        Eve Frame is a major character in “I Married a Communist”. In my opinion it is a good book, but the weakest of Zuckeman series. Three of the later books, “American Pastoral”, “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain” only have Zuckerman as a secondary but important character.

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        • July 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

          I want to read I married a communist & American pastoral. And The ghost writer.

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  3. July 15, 2012 at 2:43 am

    Hi Emma – Great commentary on this book. You are really on to something with the three layers of perception. Even if one just sticks to the subject of perception, there is so much depth and complexity to Roth’s novels.

    As you also mention, Roth’s depiction of the 2004 Presidential election showed enormous understanding. It was as if Roth were writing about myself as well as several people that I know when he described how several of characters reacted to the event.

    Thanks for the link to my commentary. I have linked up your commentary on my blog as well.

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    • July 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      I guess I understand the characters’ reaction to the 2004 presidential Election and also Zuckerman’s attitude after the 2000 Presidential Election.

      I think he’s funny, with a dark sense of humour, but funny anyway.

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  4. July 15, 2012 at 8:14 am

    I know this book is not for me. Because Roth is not for me. The Human Stain already grossed me out, I’m afraid this one would even more. I think he is obsessed with his body, I’m not even able to concentrate on the finer emotions and ideas when I read about that.

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    • July 16, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      How can he not be obsessed with his body when he’s reminded at every moment of the day that it doesn’t work properly anymore?
      It’s not gross, it’s realistic without useless details and for once, it’s not about a woman ageing but about a man. Usually, you read about old breasts and fat bottoms, and wrinkles and poor women trying to capture a bit of youth. Here, it’s not about beauty, it’s about dignity.

      But if you didn’t like The Humain Stain, I think you’re right when you say that Roth isn’t for you.

      PS: You make me want to start Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. The critics are excellent and I love Pennac.

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    • leroyhunter
      July 17, 2012 at 10:33 pm

      Caroline: try Nemesis. Roth in general may not be for you, but I’d be amazed if you didn’t enjoy that particular book.

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      • July 19, 2012 at 6:41 pm

        Thanks, Leroy, I’ll keep it in mind.

        Like

  5. July 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I read Portnoy’s Complaint recently, and found that I could only enjoy it if I read it in little bits spread through several days. Otherwise it felt sticky and slightly foetid.
    This review makes the book sound really interesting, and makes me want to try it. Thank you Emma!
    Do visit!

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    • July 16, 2012 at 11:21 pm

      Hi, thanks for dropping by.
      I didn’t take Portnoy’s Complaint too seriously but I enjoyed it. I bought it after Lisa (at ANZ Lit Lovers) mentioned that it had been censored in Australia. (when it was published, not now). It intrigued me. I can’t help it.

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  6. July 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Will you be exploring the rest of the Zuckerman series do you think Emma?

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    • July 17, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      Yes, I will. The when is an entire other question.

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  7. July 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    I’m intrigued (and impressed) by your eschewing any biographical info on writers (reading about Roth might well put up a screen to your full enjoyment of his writing). I’m a bit ambivalent about his work aside from a short story I love entitled “The Conversion of the Jews,” but whether I love it or not, I have tremendous admiration for his talents. I hadn’t read him in a long time before picking up American Pastoral last summer. I’m astounded that no one talked about that book during the 2008 election season, since it deals rather directly with the Weather Underground bombing that Republicans kept risibly trying to exploit (via former Weatherman William Ayers) to portray Barack Obama as a supporter of terrorism. Say what you will about Roth, he’s astutely engaged in American politics like no other writer of his generation.

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    • July 18, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      I didn’t know about the Weather Underground until I read The Darling by Russel Banks (chilling).
      I don’t know American politics as well as you, of course but I think that Roth is excellent to analyse events without needing time to “cool off” and think about it quietly and rationally. It’s hard for me to say it in English. He manages to distance himlself from the events and analyse them while living them.

      I know I sound obsessed but Chien Blanc by Romain Gary is excellent for this. He talks about the year 1968, he’s between LA and Paris and his wife gets involved with the Black Panthers. Fascinating.

      Like

  8. leroyhunter
    July 17, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Great review Emma. I want to read the Zuckerman books in order someday, but like you say, when that day will be…
    Like Scott I’m interested in what you say about writer bios. especially as Roth is so much in the habit of explicitly putting himself in his novels. Doesn’t that make you wonder if he’s deceitful, or self-deprecating or whatever? the only way you know is by comparing to the actual life (or person). And it certainly sheds some different light on the debate you describe about how a writer should be treated by posterity.

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    • July 18, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      No, I’m not interested to know if he cheats on his wife, if he has a good relationship with his children or if he used to fight with his siblings.
      I totally agree with what Max says below.

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  9. July 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Like Emma I also tend to avoid author bios. They rarely interest me, as the text ultimately has to stand or fall alone. The words on the page have to stand by themselves, they bear such meanings as they bear. Whether the author meant something different, had a particular meaning in mind or was referencing some incident of great personal import is for me largely irrelevant. The text is the text, and the text is the words on the page.

    If an author is putting themselves or aspects of their life into the books then that’s fine, but does it matter whether it’s true, false, self-aggrandising, self-deprectating? It is what it is, the novel is there with a character in it who may or may not be persuasive.

    Even if an author directly appears in their novel, as Amis does in Money for example, it’s still not them. It’s a fictional construct based on them, sharing some of their characteristics.

    Where I get concerned is that the search for bio can become reductive (though obviously it needn’t do so). So many discussions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time focus on who characters were based on, how much is true, what does any of that matter? He created a world, it stands (as it did for me) or falls (as it did for a colleague at work who found it insufferable) on its own merits. Would it really make it a better series to know that Widmerpool was based on former cabinet minister Sir whatever?

    The truth of art lies in its beauty, not its truth.

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  10. leroyhunter
    July 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Max: well I agree, knowing something of a writer’s life won’t make an unsuccesful work suddenly succeed. It may however help you to understand why it fails, which could be interesting.

    I’m not suggesting the kind of slavish correlation between a writer’s life and work you mention in regard to Powell, which frankly sounds more like a lit bingo game then anything useful. But equally I find the idea of the text (or painting etc) standing in total isolation to its creator’s life or other factors to be, in its own way, reductive and limiting. Some biography can be relevant to some works some of the time: it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition as far as I’m concerned. In this instance, where a writer who has engaged on a long-term project to fictionalise his life in his work has two characters debating the very nature of literary biography, it seems like an appropriate thing to consider. It doesn’t “matter” per se, but it does (to my mind) give a different and interesting direction of approach to Roth (and Coetzee, to take another obvious example) and his themes.

    To pick up your mention of Amis, why has he stopped putting a “Martin Amis” character into his books, I wonder? Not a question that the success of a book will stand or fall by, but for me interesting to tease out.

    I think my feeling about this is that we experience a work of art thanks to the multitude of decisions a writer etc has made during the creative process. To me, knowing of or understanding some of those decisions can help me to understand the final work, or to think in different ways about it. If a book is terrible then most likely I won’t take the trouble to explore those decisons. If it’s something I value though then seeking out different levels of interpretation (one of which could be biographical) is something I’ll embrace.

    “The truth of art lies in its beauty, not its truth” – like all generalisations, this is true up to a point but also I think unhelpful. How do statements of beauty relate to Francis Bacon’s paintings, for example? Yet I find his work immensely powerful and disturbing. I don’t like this idea of art existing at some remove from the life or context that created it. Art relects or illuminates human experience, most of all, surely, the experience of the person who created it. We can take, as readers, as much or as little as we want from that. I find some of the questions raised by biographical matters add richness to my reading, and I’m curious about the different approach you & Emma take.

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    • July 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm

      I take your points, Leroy, and I understand them but I’m not exactly talking about the same thing. Roth criticizes mostly the interest in personal details that are irrelevant with the work and can come as a filter between the reader and the book. Or worse, make the writer more known for some juicy detail about their private life than for their novels. And no, I’m not interested in knowing how much of his real self Roth put into Zuckerman. (assuming that “real self” actually means something.)

      I don’t read bios but I read forewords in books and this interests me. They are interesting because they put the book into their historical context and sometimes explain part of the creative process, enlightened by biographical elements if needed. That’s enough for me. I’m more interested in the historical elements of the battle of Hernani than in Hugo’s love life. And I’m not interested in reading a bio of Flaubert, for example.

      Or, to give another example, I read Austen’s biography by Claire Tomalin. Well, I don’t see what it brought to my reading of Pride and Prejudice.

      I also think that when you read several books by the same writer, you end up hearing their voice and discovering a bit about them anyway.

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      • July 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm

        Something else: I’m not interested in Roth’s life but I’m terribly interested in reading The Shadow-Line by Conrad upon Zuckerman’s recommendation. 🙂

        Like

  11. July 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Leroy, all this is more a question of my approach than a manifesto. Clearly it may be appropriate to consider a writer’s life in relation to their works and many do find exploring links between author and work interesting. That said, for me there is a question of whether by exploring the life we fill holes (some of which may be better left unfilled) in the text.

    The process of writing isn’t one that interests me greatly, I tend not to get excited either when say early proofs of a great work are discovered or an author’s letters describing their thoughts and struggles with a text. That’s not to say I’m not interested in technique, but in the end for me that technique must manifest in the final work. I do think authorial intent, the question (which I sometimes ask myself because like most people I’m inconsistent) of what the author meant by something is an irrelevant question. It may be of interest, but what they meant at a conscious level and what they actually wrote may have little in common. The author ultimately is not an authority on their work.

    I suppose I see art as essentially without purpose, but then I see everything as essentially without purpose so that’s not very helpful. All generalisations are of course meaningless, particularly this one. The question of beauty is a tricky one. Beauty isn’t quite the right term, but the difference for me between art and craft (and that’s a distinction with no edges, no boundary capable of discovery) is that craft needs must be utile. Art can be useless. It may reflect our experience, but does it truly change us? What value is there in our experience being reflected? Art is incredibly important to me, as it is to anyone who frequents blogs such as Emma’s or mine or any of the other blogs we meet on, but somehow I do still feel that at some level art needn’t answer to anything but itself. I struggle though to explain quite what I mean by that.

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  12. July 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I do quite like Emma’s point about the life becoming a filter, a screen even, between us and the work. That does seem to me a danger. I also though always read forewords, though always afterwards since otherwise they can themselves become a filter.

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    • July 19, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      I also read forewords afterwards, otherwise they influence my reading. Plus they often include spoilers.

      Like

  13. July 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    This is a great review, but… for some reason, any American book just fails to raise my interest. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t summon the energy to read about a country I care very little about… A terrible and embarrassing thing to say, but true 😦

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    • July 19, 2012 at 11:15 pm

      It’s hard to ignore Roth is American when you read him, so it’s probably not for you. I enjoy reading American literature. When I read them in French, I choose books published by 10:18 and I’m rarely disappointed..

      Like

  14. leroyhunter
    July 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Max, Emma: you’re right, it’s simply a question of approach. Sometimes interesting light can be shed on a book; often biography is superfluous. I guess statements like “I avoid writer bios” can sound manifesto-like, that’s what I picked up on. It reminded me (wrongly, clearly) of similarly restrictive statements one tends to see such as “I don’t read translated books” or “I only read X type of book.” You’re both such avid and adventurous readers that it demanded a comment.

    The idea of the screen or filter is interesting. Maybe I just lack principles, but I find I can put that sort of thing aside quite comfortably once I’m reading the work. Some of the writers we all admire greatly have egregious actions or beliefs spotting their CVs, yet as Max said it’s the work that ultimately matters. I like knowing both sides though.

    I think I know what you mean about the art question, Max, and beauty doesn’t quite cover it. Art often does have a purpose, I believe, but part of the point I was making about the biog question is that it’s not necessary for us to acknowledge or even to see that purpose for the art to be valuable to us – my favourite example being Milton’s Paradise Lost. But yes, of course there are plenty of works where the mere existence of the item is its artistic justification. My worry would be that that excuses wasteful examples of The Grand Trite, such as the Olympic squiggle that is getting so much attention just now.

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    • July 21, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      I should have said “detailed biography” in the sense of what Roth refers to: a whole book about a writer’s life. I doesn’t mean that I don’t check the basics in a dictionary or in the book when the information is available.

      Like

  15. July 25, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    J’avais adoré ce roman, mon premier Philip Roth en fait 🙂
    Ton blog a l’air absolument passionnant, je dois savourer cette découverte en prenant le temps de parcourir tes articles ! à très bientôt…

    Like

    • July 25, 2012 at 10:45 pm

      J’aime beaucoup Philip Roth, j’ai bien l’intention d’en lire d’autres.
      Merci pour les compliments, j’espère que ce que tu liras sera à la hauteur de tes attentes! A bientôt.

      Like

  1. July 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm
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