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Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

June 27, 2015 14 comments

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. 2009. French title: Long week-end. (Translated by Françoise Adelstain)

For June our Book Club was reading Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. Our narrator is Henry, he’s older now and he comes back to the Labor Day week-end that changed his life when he was 13.

Henry lives with his mother in Holton Mills, New Hampshire and this is how he describes his family:

IT WAS JUST THE TWO OF US, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie’s son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.

Maynard_FrenchHis mother is rather depressed, I don’t know if it’s the right medical tag but she works from home, hates going out of the house. She barely manages to take care of her son. Henry sees his father every week-end but he doesn’t feel welcome in his new family. Henry doesn’t like sports and his father would like him to play baseball, something Henry doesn’t like. He feels like Richard is a better suited son for his father. So he endures the dreadful weekly diners and grows up with a mother who’s different from other moms.

That Labor Day, they went to the mall to buy some new clothes because school starts in a few days. While they’re in a supermarket, Frank comes to them and asks him to invite him to their home for the week-end. Frank has just escaped from prison. Well, he was in jail, had appendicitis and jumped out of the window of the hospital. Adele takes him in.

Then the unforeseeable happens. Frank is a sweet man and he makes himself at home. He fixes the house, cooks, plays ball with Henry. He and Adele fall in love in front of Henry. And witnessing this upsets him. He’s already troubled by puberty. He thinks about sex all the time. Being around his mother and Frank in a closed space makes him uncomfortable.

Yet, in a sense, he’s happy about it.

Your mother and I thought we’d take a little walk on the beach, son, Frank says to me. And the thought occurs to me that here is one of the best parts about his showing up. I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance.

He’s never seen his mother that way and he really likes Frank. He’s happy for her but has to learn to share her, to leave room for a man. He’s been everything for her for too long.

At the same time, Henry’s forced to see that his mother is a woman, that she and Frank do what’s on his mind all the time. He’s obliged to acknowledge his mother’s sexuality while his in under construction.

And then, there’s the power to know that he can end their love story whenever he wants. He just needs to give a call to the police…

Maynard_EnglishI enjoyed reading Labor Day but was disappointed by its Hollywood ending. I would have liked it nastier. Here, what could have been a really twisted tale becomes rather tame. I had read half of it when Jacqui published her review of Agostino by Alberto Moravia. On paper, the stories have similarities. However, I’m sure they differ in their tone and that Moravia has added that little wicked turn I’m missing here. Well, I’ll see that in a few months when we read Agostino for our Book Club.

That said, Joyce Maynard writes well. I wasn’t an adolescent boy but I suspect that what she describes is accurate. Adele is a rather unusual woman, broken by a past that the book reveals, just as Frank. Henry’s voice is strong and rings true. He reveals his mother and Frank’s backgrounds and stories with a lot of calm and humanity. Touch by touch, their portraits come to life. Maynard creates a strong atmosphere around this novel and the reader feels part of Henry’s world. She pictures the cracks life has inflicted on her characters’ souls.

Labor Day was made into a film by Jason Reitman in 2013. Kate Winslet was Adele, Josh Brolin was Frank and Gattlin Griffith was Henry. Why not. I haven’t seen it but without Maynard’s prose, the story becomes rather ordinary. It has salt under her writer’s pen; I’m not sure it translates well on screen. Have you seen it?

PS : I prefer the French cover. Less corny. Is there a secret competition among American publishers to reward the one who comes with the corniest cover? Sometimes I wonder.

The Linnea trilogy

December 21, 2014 13 comments

The Linnea trilogy (my term) is composed of the following books by Katarina Mazetti:

  • Det är slut mellan Gud och mej (God and I broke up, available in English) 1995
  • Det är slut mellan Rödluvan och vargen (The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. Not translated into English) 1998
  • Slutet är bara början (The End Is Only the Beginning. Not translated into English) 2002

mazetti_trilogy

I’ve already read two books by Katarina Mazetti (Benny and Shrimp, the English title is silly because the original means The Guy Next Grave) and Family Grave) and I thought they were good light books. You know, the kind of books that aren’t too difficult to read but are still well written? The ones I put in the Beach and Public Transport category? They’re relaxing. When I was struggling with Berlin Alexanderplatz, I read God and I Broke Up. When I was drowning in Flan O’Brien’s prose, I read The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. And I closed the trilogy with The End Is Only the Beginning. I’m a bit in a rush to finish writing about the 2014 books I’ve read before the year ends, so I’m writing one billet about the three novellas.

In the first volume, we meet with Linnea. She’s sixteen and her best friend Pia has just died. She’s grieving while trying to live her adolescence.

On n’a pas de statut quand on a perdu un ami! Si ton mari meurt, tu deviens veuve, une veuve vêtue de noir et les gens baissent la voix en ta présence pendant des années.Si c’est ton meilleur ami qui meurt, les gens te demandent après quelque temps pourquoi tu broies encore du noir. You have no status when you lose a friend! If your husband dies, you become a widow dressed in black and people talk to you in a low voice for years. If your best friend dies, after a while, people ask you why you’re still feeling down.

The novella is a first person narrative; we’re in Linnea’s head and the style reflects perfectly the mix of cockiness and insecurity of adolescence. Losing Pia makes Linnea feel isolated even if in appearances, she’s well adjusted. She has rather good grades, socialises with her classmates and takes part in family life. God and I Broke Up is not the portrait of a depressed teenager. It’s the portrait of an adolescent who lost her confident, the person she could loosen up with. Linnea used Pia as a sounding board for her ideas and vice versa. She’s grieving this precious intimacy. God and I Broke Up is the story of a banal adolescent. She lives in a small Swedish town where there’s not much to do, she goes to school and has the usual crushes, stories about classes and lunch breaks. Her mother is divorced and remarried with Ingo, an inspiring artist. He builds artwork with wood and lets his wife be the bread winner. They have a son together, Knotte who’s very close to Linnea. She’s a middle-class Swedish girl.

The salt of the novella is in the characters, their quirky ways and Linnea’s voice. It addresses the typical questions of adolescence: what about God?, what about love?, what about my future? and who am I? And Linnea tells you…

Il ne faut pas gaspiller sa vie en courant entre les manèges et les stands comme à une fête foraine. Restez là où vous vous sentez vraiment bien. Il vaut mieux se décider en conscience que de laisser tout au hasard. Car il faut se décider. On ne peut pas conduire une moto et écouter le chant des oiseaux en même temps. On ne peut pas être à la fois cascadeuse et heureuse mère de sept enfants. You shoudn’t waste your life running from one attraction to the other like you would in a funfair. Stay where you feel very good. It’s better to make the decision than let chance decided. Because you have to make a decision. You can’t ride a motorbike and at the same time listen to the birds singing. You cannot be a stuntman and the happy mother of seven children.

I liked the second volume, The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up, less than the first one. I don’t know if it’s the same in English or in Swedish –the French title is the exact translation of the original Swedish title, I checked— but in French, Elle a vu le loup (literally, She saw the wolf) means She lost her virginity. So in this second opus of the series, Linnea runs away to Los Angeles and loses her virginity on the way there. I was less keen on this one because I found it a bit unrealistic. What is interesting though is the depiction of Los Angeles. It demystifies the American dream that most European adolescents have. Linnea doesn’t end up in shiny Rodeo Drive. She ends up in the side of Malibu where people speak Spanish better than English and have two or three crappy jobs to survive. That’s a good wake-up call for us who see from the US mostly what the sunny TV series show us.

The last volume relates Linnea’s last year of high school…

Nous voilà au début du premier trimestre de terminale, les professeurs se promènent en levant l’index d’un geste menaçant qui a l’art de plomber l’ambiance : « Ce sera peut-être l’année la plus importante de votre vie, vous comprenez, c’est maintenant que vous décidez de votre avenir !!! » Here we are at the beginning of the first period of senior year. The teachers walk around with their index finger raised in a threatening manner and are masters at spoiling the fun: “This may be the most important year of your life, you understand. This is when you decide on your future!!!”

…—it does ring a bell, doesn’t it? — and it’s about Linnea’s first love relationship with Per, Pia’s older brother. I thought this volume was as good as the first one. It doesn’t go for corny but for funny and real, like here when Linnea describes her attraction to Per:

La pilosité dans le visage des garçons a quelque chose d’attirant, j’avais l’impression que ses sourcils lançaient des décharges de phéromones, et, pour être franche, je ne peux pas y résister. Une tablette de chocolat sur le ventre ne me fait aucun effet—mais donnez-moi un visage poilu et je craque sur le champ. Parfois je me dis que c’est parce que je n’ai jamais eu de chien quand j’étais petite… Hair on a boy’s face is attracting. It was as if his eyebrows were shooting pheromones discharges and to be honest, I can’t resist it. Six-pack abs do nothing to me but give me a hairy face and I melt on the spot. Sometimes I think it’s because I never had a dog as a child.

Er, I suppose the first part of this quote is rather comforting for hairy boys. Please note that in French a six-pack is tablette de chocolat (bars of chocolate). Back to the book. While Linnea contemplates and comments the effects of love on her mind and body, life goes on around her. Her friend Malin is in a tough spot, her grand-mother has a stroke and questions about university linger. Her relationship with Per stems from their connection to Pia and not from common interests so it fizzles over different visions of life. Per is in the military and Linnea’s background is rather alternative. Katarina Mazetti is a feminist and Linnea is a quiet feminist as well. She holds her ground and won’t let Per control her and that’s a valuable message to adolescent girls.

The Linnea trilogy is a light, fun and spot-on read. If you have teenagers around you, I recommend it because it’s the kind of book that leaves you relieved as in “Good, I’m not the only one who feels that way”. And I think it’s a very comforting thought. Plus, it’s easy to read and it may be a way to lure some into reading books!

 

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

October 7, 2012 27 comments

Apocalypse Bébé by Virginie Despentes. 2010. Available in German and Italian. Will be available in English (UK) in June 2013.

Virginie Despentes is a French writer born in 1969. Her first novel, Baise-moi (Do I have to translate?) was made into a film directed by Virginie Despentes herself and Coralie Trinh Ti. The film was first allowed for spectators over 16, then rated X (porn) and eventually rated for spectators over 18. I haven’t seen it, we’re in France, not in the US, when a movie is rated X, there’s really raw sex in there. I’m not particularly interested in that kind of movie. So she’s a writer I’d never read before and as you can easily imagine, political correctness is not in her line of work.

Apocalypse Bébé is her seventh novel; it was published in 2010 and won the Prix Renaudot. Valentine, 15, has disappeared. She’s the daughter of a rather famous writer, François Galtan. Her mother vanished from her life when she was a baby and her formidable grand-mother helped François raise her. Valentine is on the wild side of adolescence, she drinks, has sex with strangers, misses school and pretty much does anything to be intolerable and unmanageable to her father and mother-in-law. Valentine was under surveillance from an employee of a PI agency, Lucie, when she disappears. Lucie is a poor PI, she ended up in this job by chance and clings to it out of fear of unemployment. So when Valentine disappears, she’s a bit overwhelmed with her task to actually find her instead of just watching her. She decides to ask for the help of La Hyène, a specialist in such matters.

Valentine is the Ariadne’s thread between the characters we will discover. The chapters follow chronologically the researches Claire and La Hyène do to find Valentine. In such, the book borrows to thrillers. But it has also the tone of a road-movie, leading Lucie and La Hyène in the places Valentine used to go and to Barcelona.

In each chapter we change of point of view, seeing the moment through the eyes of Lucie, La Hyène, François, Claire, the mother in law, Vanessa, Valentine’s mother and different participants to the research. All the characters don’t fit in our world. Valentine, raised by an old vindictive woman and a self-centered womanizer as a father, has no guiding light, no frame of references to ground her. The story slowly unravels the last twelvemonth of her young life before her disappearance.

All the characters have their own issues. Lucie is dull, self-conscious and entangled in a life she follows instead of leading it. La Hyène is an incredible character, full of violence and lucidity. She flirts with illegality and doesn’t hesitate to use doubtful methods when she thinks they’re needed. She has no moral compass and we’ll know where it comes from. Galtan is a pathetic writer, always looking for attention from the media, not quite detached from his mother and married to a woman he cheats on regularly. Claire is desperate and frightened. She thought that living her life according to the rules would bring her happiness but it didn’t and she feels betrayed. Valentine scares her with her raw violence, her lack of manners. Through Vanessa’s family we have a glimpse of society in the banlieues and the way general rules don’t apply there.

With Valentine as a thread and the different characters as a pattern, Despentes weaves a tapestry of today’s French society. She’s abrupt, nasty and provocative. She shows the country behind the curtains and analyses it without kindness. She points out the violence in the suburbs, the underground world. The ending is chilling and resonates with the current news, but I can’t say more to avoid spoilers. Her style is powerful, using street language when the character’s voice needs it. She catches the essence of our time. She’s as provocative as Houellebecq but for me, she succeeds where he fails. Houellebecq is a man of the 20th century. The two novels I read are provocative but in the past. They are based on the angst of the white male with a language that didn’t hit the mark. Virginie Despentes is a feminist, a lesbian I believe, and her light on our world is resolutely in the 21st century. Like Houellebecq, her vision of our society is dark and rather desperate but unlike Houellebecq she shows it with the means of our time. Her characters aren’t depressed, they adjust.

It’s good to read a novel different from an intimate drama, different from the story of a dysfunctional family only. Valentine’s family is dysfunctional but it’s not the theme of the book. Max wrote an entry about Cosmopolis and the creative cowardice of Anglo-American literature where he explains that, to him, contemporary Anglo-Saxon writers fail to capture our age. In her own trashy way, I think that Virgine Despentes succeeds in this. Her novel doesn’t sound like the product of a writing class but the expression of her gut feeling about our world.

I sure want to read another of her books.

Teen with spirit

June 30, 2012 11 comments

Mentre dorme il pescecane by Milena Agus. 2005. French title : Quand le requin dort. Not translated into English. It means When the shark is asleep.

Chez nous, chacun court après quelque chose : maman la beauté, papa l’Amérique du Sud, mon frère la perfection, ma tante un fiancé.

Et moi j’écris des histoires, parce que quand le monde ne me plaît pas, je me transporte dans le mien et je suis bien

At home, every one runs after something: Mom after beauty, Dad after South America, my brother after perfection and my aunt after a fiancé.

And me, I write stories because when I don’t like the world I live in, I move away into mine and I feel fine.

This is in a nutshell the flavor of this odd little book, Milena Agus’s debut novel. She’s Italian and her other novel Mal di Pietre was a success in France and this is how I discovered her.

Mentre dorme il pescecane is a first person narrative and our narrator is a high school teenager. She tries to figure out who she is and that’s not easy when you live in such a weird family as hers. The father is a militant who’s into helping others but forgets to help his own children. His dream is to immigrate to South America. Meanwhile, he takes trips there for humanitarian purpose. He has a strong and lively personality. He’s the kind of person who always gets forgiven no matter what he does because when you interact with him, he makes you feel special. You know the type?

The mother is a strange and shy little thing. Her family thinks she’s fragile and protects her from everything. Like our young heroin says:

Nous aimons voir le monde derrière une couche de miel et papa dit que nous allons nous faire un diabète du cerveau.

We enjoy seeing the world through honey and dad says we’ll get brain diabetes.

She lives in a sort of fantasy world, shielded against real life, growing flowers on the rooftop and painting. She’s a mousy type with too much sensitivity for her own good.

The brother is a piano lover. He wants to be a professional pianist and spends all his time in his room, practicing, shutting his family out, avoiding the world. He’s bullied at the high school by fellow students and he evades from reality through music.

The aunt is a beautiful woman whose clock is ticking and who does her best to find a husband. The problem is she has a bad taste in men. She’s in love with Mauro the womanizer and tries to forget him by finding other men specimen afraid of commitment.

Our narrator is into a sadomasochist sex relationship with a married man and all the while being quite innocent and candid. She doesn’t enjoy it very much but the physical pain distances her from her other pains. It’s a way to try not to fall in love, not to let feelings take the best of her. All the while, she observes and analyses her strange family with the growing awareness of the adolescent.

We follow all this little world during these month that are worth years. Our narrator observes, keeps a mental scrapbook of her understanding of grown-ups and patches up for herself philosophy of life, her personal guidebook for the future.

The narrator’s voice is funny and unusual, poetic and black at the same time. She’s always moving on, she’s never desperate even when things turn horribly wrong. She’s a mix of candor and realism, of romanticism and cynicism, of acceptance and rebellion. She’s an attaching character, a bit extreme sometimes. All the characters are loveable in their way, even the selfish father or the libertine Mauro.

It’s a coincidence but I’m into teen narrators these days. Tino in Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino, David in Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, Watanabe in Norwegian Wood and now an unnamed girl in Mentre dorme il pescecane. It just happened but it’s nice to read several books like this in a row and compare the voices of the character. All books are first person narrations, either writing as the events happen (Arpino, Agus) or a lot later when a need to tell memories becomes pressing. (Watson, Murakami) The writers managed to either recreate the puzzlement of young adults entering adulthood and understanding what’s behind the facade. The novels are less poignant when the narrator relates something from their past rather than showing their inner minds as the events happen. Contrary to the other books I read, Mentre dorme il pescecane is the only one not constructed around a life changing event that threw the narrator into the world of adults.

Milena Agus’s character is an odd girl, seeking good sun, proper water and enough intellectual and emotional nutriments to be in full bloom. After her, Exit Ghost with its seventy-one-years old Nathan Zuckerman and his incontinence problem is quite a change…How odd too that this book will be sitting on my shelf between the depressing Novel with Cocain by M Agueev and the cult Money by Martin Amis.

The end of innocence

February 9, 2012 18 comments

Le blé en herbe by Colette. 1923 English title: The Ripening Seed.

This month, our selection for our Book Club Les Copines d’Abord was Le blé en herbe by Colette, a brilliant novella picturing the delicate time between childhood and adulthood. Colette doesn’t mention adolescence, I’m not sure that word was commonly used at the time.

Early 1920s. Philippe and Vinca spend all their summers in Brittany with their parents, who are used to renting the same house together every summer. Phil and Vinca have known each other since childhood. They are close friends, sharing their activities. But this year, things have changed as they are leaving childhood behind and starting the difficult path of adulthood.

Mais le plus beau matin rajeunissait jusqu’à ces enfants égarés et qui se tournaient parfois, plaintivement, vers la porte invisible par où ils étaient sortis de l’enfance. But the brightest morning made these distraught children look younger. Sometimes, they turned back plaintively towards the invisible door through which they had come out of childhood.

The tender feelings between them are shifting from a carefree camaraderie into love. So they think. They grope around, hesitate to name their growing feeling, knowing deep inside it is changing. Each of them experiences the turmoil of adolescence, questions about identity, love, sex, the future.

Philippe envisions school, diplomas, work. He knows Vinca mentally prepares to get married and be a housewife. He tries to act as a man. She has womanly curves but still behaves like a tomboy, fishing crabs and shrimps, walking by the sea, throwing stones in the ocean. This summer, their sensuality awakens. They try to understand what happens, do their best to cope with it. They become self-conscious, walls build up between them. Philippe realizes he doesn’t know her as much as he thought. She loves him unconditionally but seems more mature than him sometimes. She has to face his weaknesses. They misunderstand each other, quarrel sometimes. The external element who will unbalance their casualness and force them to face their feeling will be Mme Dalleray, a 30 years old woman who meets Philippe and seduces him.

Philippe and Vinca call their parents les Ombres, the Shadows. They are so caught up in their little drama, their internal tempest that they behave on automatic pilot when they are among their families. They have this silent understanding between them, their own unspoken language. They are oblivious to their parents and they perceive them as distant puppets moving around them, Shadows gesticulating in the background. I can relate to that. I remember that feeling and I still do that sometimes, partially withdraw from my environment when something bothers me. Teenagers sometimes seem selfish but their energy is turned inward trying to understand the hurricane of questions and feelings they discover. (Please remind me of that in a few years when my children are teenagers.)

In Le blé en herbe, it is August, the summer is ending, so is Philippe and Vinca’s childhood. The descriptions of the landscape go along with the change in their attitude towards one another. Colette is an excellent writer, giving a vivid picture of the scenery, the wilderness and the sense of an ending.

L’odeur de l’automne, depuis quelques jours, se glissait, le matin, jusqu’à la mer.De l’aube à l’heure où la terre, échauffée, permet que le souffle frais de la mer repousse l’arôme, moins dense, des sillons ouverts, du blé battu, des engrais fumants, ces matins d’août sentaient l’automne. Since a few days, the scent of autumn drifted to the sea in the morning. From dawn to the hour when the warm earth allows the fresh breath from the sea to push aside the less dense aroma of the open furrows, of the beaten wheat, of the steaming manure, these August mornings smelled like autumn.

Colette perfectly unfolds their tormented relationship and remarkably describes the impact of sensuality on what they think is a couple. The characters aren’t what you could expect. Philippe is more hesitant and troubled than Vinca. Does it matter that this novel was written by a woman? I think it does. Colette had a free lifestyle and it resonates in her work. I feel that no male writer managed to describe the fragility of an adolescent boy the way Colette did. At least not before the 1970s and men’s acceptance of their soft side. Here the characters aren’t what you expect. Philippe cries, overwhelmed by emotions. Vinca is more practical, able to repress her feelings and act rationally. In a way, she’s stronger than him.

I am sorry I couldn’t find an online version of The Ripening Seed, I had to translate the quotes and it wasn’t easy. Colette is gifted, subtle, managing to mirror Phil and Vinca’s feelings into the lanscape. It’s a faithful portrait of adolescence, the end of innocence, the end of certainties and the mistaken impression nobody ever experienced what we feel. Danielle reviewed it too (spoilers there) but the quote by a professional translator will give you a better idea of Colette’s talent.

The weight of consequences

August 30, 2011 16 comments

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 2008. 343 pages

« Deux désespoirs qui se rencontrent, cela peut bien faire un espoir, mais cela prouve seulement que l’espoir est capable de tout… » Romain Gary, Clair de femme. (1)

1983: Alice is skiing against her will, her father wants her to be a ski champion. She’s cold, sick and has a poo on herself with her clothes on. Ashamed and afraid of her father, she leaves the group, gets lost in the fog and has a serious ski accident.

1984: Mattia’s twin sister Michela is mentally retarded. He always needs to take care of her. For once, they’re invited to a birthday party. Mattia wants to go without Michela, to have a free mind. His parents refuse. He abandons Michela in a nearby park. She will never be found again.

After these tragic events, Alice and Mattia have to live with the weight of consequences. She’s lame and anorexic. He feels guilty and expresses it by cutting his hands with whatever he finds. Both have difficulties to trust other people. Mattia has a wide private space around him, he’s almost unreachable. He finds solace in mathematics and especially in algebra. It’s clean, logical and involves no emotion. They meet in high school and start an on-and-off friendship. We follow them at different moments of their lives but I won’t tell what happens to them, to avoid spoilers.

At once I was angry at those parents who don’t take their children’s wishes into account. Alice’s father doesn’t listen and imposes his will. She’s too scared to say she doesn’t like skiing or that she can’t swallow more milk. Her mother is inexistent. Mattia’s parents rely on him to watch Michela in school and ask him to take care of her. As they are twins, they’re in the same class and Mattia is always with her. His parents ask too much, make him take on the responsibilities of adults and don’t let him have the childhood he deserves. Either dictatorial or dismissive, these parents don’t play their roles as confidents, shields and gardeners of young beings. They let their children become dysfunctional adults. Alice’s parents are well aware that she doesn’t eat enough. They don’t react. Mattia’s parents don’t know what to do with that brilliant child who hurts himself.

I thought that Paolo Giordano drew a compassionate portrait of these two broken souls. They fight against a past that eats them alive. Their relationship is strong but complicated.

Giordano’s style is pleasant, sometimes inventive. He managed to avoid corny romance, useless pathos and implausible optimism. Something I can’t nail lacked in this book, I wasn’t really fond of Alice and/or Mattia. I missed the kind of bond you can create with such characters. That’s me, not the book. It’s a good read, it won the Primo Strega, a prestigious literary prize in Italy. I found a good review at the Guardian here.

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(1) Two despairs who meet can make a hope, but it only proves that hope is capable of anything…

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