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“Melville: A Novel” by Jean Giono

Melville by Jean Giono
Translated from the French by Paul Eprile
108 pgs. | pb | 9781681371375 | $14.00
NYRB
Review by Brendan Riley

 

In The Books in My Life (1952), Henry Miller, devoting an entire chapter to French writer Jean Giono (1895-1970), boasts about spending “several years. . . . preaching the gospel––of Jean Giono. I do not say that my words have fallen upon deaf ears, I merely complain that I have made myself a nuisance at the Viking Press in New York, for I keep pestering them intermittently to speed up the translations of Giono’s works.”[i]

Indefatigable gusher, self-mythologizer, and, among many other things, enthusiast of whatever struck his fancy at the moment, (including, in Black Spring, the joy of open-air urination behind the blind of a Parisian pissoir) Miller tenders this lugubrious caveat:

“Fortunately I am able to read Giono in his own tongue and, at the risk of sounding immodest, in his own idiom. But . . . I continue to think of the countless thousands in England and America who must wait until his books are translated. I feel that I could convey to the ranks of his ever-growing admirers innumerable readers whom his American publishers despair of reaching. I think I could even sway the hearts of those who have never heard of him––in England, Australia, New Zealand and other places where the English language is spoke. But I seem incapable of moving those few pivotal beings who hold . . . his destiny in their hands. Neither with logic nor passion, neither with statistics nor examples, can I budge the position of editors and publishers in this, my native land. I shall probably succeed in getting Giono translated into Arabic, Turkish and Chinese before I convince his American publishers to go forward with the task they so sincerely began.” (Miller 100).

Whether or not Miller’s translation mission prodded Viking into action, a search of various online publication sources shows that some 16 of Giono’s 33 finished novels have, so far, been translated into English. Some notable examples include Hill (trans. Paul Eprile, NYRB, 2016), the third English-language translation of Giono’s Colline, which has also appeared in English as Hill of Destiny (translated by Jacques Le Clercq, published by Brentano’s 1929), and again, in 1986, translated by Brian Nelson, bearing the French title Colline. Giono’s adventure novel The Horseman on the Roof was translated by Jonathan Griffin in 1982—many people have seen the well-regarded 1995 film adaptation starring Juliette Binoche and Oliver Martinez—and a collection of essays, The Battle of Pavia, was translated by A. E. Merch in 1985. In 2017, nearly half a century since Miller’s effusion, and 76 years after its initial publication in 1941, NYRB issued the first English translation of Giono’s Melville, a splendid read, also translated by Paul Eprile. Henry Miller singled out Melville for high praise:

“When [Giono] touches a man like our own Herman Melville, in the book called Pour Saluer Melville (which the Viking Press refuses to bring out, though it was translated for them), we come very close to the real Giono––and, what is even more important, close to the real Melville. This Giono is a poet. His poetry is of the imagination and reveals itself just as forcibly in his prose. It is through this function that Giono reveals his power to captivate men and women everywhere, regardless of rank, class, status or pursuit.” (Miller 102)

Miller also confesses that Herman Melville “is not one of my favorites. Moby-Dick has always been a sort of bête noir for me,” but says that “After reading Pour Saluer Melville, which is a poet’s interpretation of a poet,––‘a pure invention,’ as Giono himself says in a letter––I was literally beside myself. How often it is the ‘foreigner’ who teaches us to appreciate our own authors!” (Miller 110-111).

In his introduction to this NYRB edition, Edmund White offers a different sort of appreciation: “[Pour Saluer Melville] began as the introduction to [Giono’s] translation of Moby-Dick (the first in French)” and “still the standard translation into French.” The short novel that evolved from that introduction, says White “must be one of the strangest homages from one major author to another.”[ii]

A slender, captivating work, barely 100 pages, Giono’s Melville, is clear, colorful, lyrical, and light on its feet. A really fine short novel whose limpid concision feels instructional, and whose chromatic emotional depth feels inspirational. Giono’s propulsive story of a middle-aged Melville falling in love far from home is consistently lively, interesting, pleasant, surprising, and memorable. Strange, yes, but also beautiful, gentle, and humane.

Giono’s luminous, finely crafted prose, via Paul Eprile’s meticulous, elegant translation, has depth and affective resonance, whispering repeated invitations to revisit its simple, wonderfully human scenes.

Wrapping himself in a fictive nineteenth century Melvillian cocoon in which the famous writer connects with, captivates, and is captivated by all sorts of people, Giono frames his fantasia in broad swaths of biography: Melville’s early life in New England, then as an apprentice seaman and mate, his voyages inspiring his early bestsellers: Typee, Omoo, Mardi, and Redburn.

Giono’s memorable portrait of Melville’s mother—foreshadowing Melville’s later meeting with the fictional Adelina White, an Irish Nationalist who becomes his muse for Moby-Dick—mixes precise and varied detail, stinging satire, bookish allusions, and wry humor, attributes with which the novel as a whole is strongly and effectively imbued:

Now, in 1814, Herman’s father — or, shall we say, in order to become Herman’s father — Allan took Maria Gansevoort as his wife. Poor, dear Mama! To be able to think about her now, Herman would be forced to flush the sweet balm out of his head. The loveliest month of May could never have borne any sort of perfume for poor Maria. She was cold, thin, materialistic, dry, methodical, angular, and arrogant. This truly unique specimen, a perfect combination of these various emotional and physical elements, clothed in austere, two-bit fustian and fortified with whalebone stays, became Mistress Melville. She made immoderate use of these womanly restraints, which her son would later mention with such innocent humor. God might have intended her to use them to drape voluptuous fabric around her body! But since her — one couldn’t really say tender — youth, she’d torn all the love poems out of her Bible and, though already a mother many times over, she still blushed at the sight of the names of Ruth, Esther, Judith . . . those women who, when you came down to it, had put their unmentionable female parts at the service of the glory of the Lord. (Giono 8-9)

Giono also creates effective, sometimes captivating working-class characters including a stable boy, a second-hand goods shopkeeper, and Captain Pearse, commander of the whaler Acushnet, where the young adventurous Melville signs on and becomes a man of the sea. Giono crafts some heady reminiscences about Melville cutting his sailor’s teeth under the rough command of Pearse, a model for Melville’s own “grand, ungodly, god-like” Ahab[iii]: “Has he ever lashed you? Yes, I mean with a whiplash, on your bare skin? Has he ever stuffed you down in the hold, bound hand and foot, with only a drop of water to drink? . . . I tell you, he does do all these things!” (Giono 18)

And on the hunt for whales, Pearse “doles out slaps and kicks in the rear. Thousands of times, in a sort of perfect, gigantic, arithmetical progression, he’ll blaspheme the name of God with curses that become more and more outrageous and original” (Giono 20). This abuse and blasphemy effect Herman’s own spiritual struggle:

“For fifteen months since he went to sea, he’s been wrestling with an angel. Like Jacob, he’s plunged in darkness, and now dawn comes. Wings—unbearably rigid—beat him, raise him up above the earth, hurl him back down, snatch him up again, and smother him. He hasn’t had a moment’s respite from the fight. No matter if he’s reached his limit; no matter if he’s completely worn out; no matter if he sinks like a stone into his berth: He wrestles with the angel. If he’s leaping into the whaleboat; if he’s riding out an iron-gray tempest; if he’s staring into the sickening maw of one of the giant creatures of the abyss. At the very same time he wrestles with the angel.” (Giono 21).

This wrestling becomes an extended metaphor throughout the novel, which is concerned naturally enough as much with Melville the sailor as Melville the writer—without the former there would have been no latter. When we see Melville sail to England to deliver his manuscript of White Jacket, Giono skips the voyage itself because Melville goes as a passenger, not a sailor, it would have been nothing like his Acushnet experiences.

In London, Herman’s publishers surprise him by immediately agreeing to all of his contractual requests and conditions, leaving the handsome, robust adventurer flush with money and satisfaction and with two weeks to kill in England before his return ship sails. In a perfectly American impulse prescient of his restless, peripatetic Ishmael in Moby-Dick, Melville, who cannot abide a fortnight’s layover in London, and feels driven, wing-beaten, to seek some new adventure, follows his wanderlust and decides to quit the big city (Giono emphasizes Herman’s Yankee pride amid stodgy, smoggy London) and light out for the West—of England. He reaches this decision by asking a stable hand what he would do if he had five pounds and “ten days of freedom to do whatever you liked.” The answer is he’d go to Woodcut, “a little hamlet . . . out Berkeley way, over there above Bristol,” adding “if you do go there, drop by Joshua’s place—-that dirty swine—at the Sign of the Old Sea-Fish. Tell him to do you a rum the way he does one for Dick. The way he does one for Dick. You tell him that.

“Now this is just the kind of adventure Herman likes best.” (Giono 31)

The Melville whose course we then follow is a funny, resourceful, gregarious, and vulnerable confection. Before undertaking his land voyage by mail coach, Herman first decides to outfit himself in secondhand sailor’s clothes. There follows an excellent scene of him haggling for items in a shop in Limehouse, in East London: “fine, blue homespun pants . . . a bargain for a striped sweater . . . made from the best quality Scottish wool . . . a splendid old pea coat: roomy, cozy, genuine, worn by rain, wind, and work, the color of night at sea, something worthy of veneration. A true shelter from the storm, a real ‘sailor’s house,’” along with “Chinese shoes made from elephant hide, as supple as gloves, the toes turned slightly upward in the Tibetan style; a greenish hide––never polished, never greased––with all of its grain; an item both artistic and practical, something absolutely unusual, yet useful everywhere, a true piece of maritime equipment.” (Giono 32-33).

Some of those phrases (supple as gloves; artistic and practical, absolutely unusual, yet useful everywhere) seem indicative of the overall quality of this resonant work whose perfect sentences and water-smooth transitions feel seamless as the segues in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The usefulness, the practicality lie within the novel’s combination of smart storytelling, arresting imagery, and wise, spirited reflections on the human condition.

Melville meets a mysterious woman, Adelina White—a very far cry from Mistress Melville—lawyer’s wife, mother, and Irish nationalist secretly fighting to save the starving Irish by using her social status, beauty, and style to help smuggle contraband wheat into famished Ireland. The passages devoted to Melville’s shy fascination with, and bumbling introduction to her are comical and tender. Giono’s homage is also an exploration of inspiration: Herman’s attraction to and pursuit of her establish the novel’s dramatic wellspring, while the development and revelation of her character form the story’s moral nexus.

Giono’s The Solitude of Compassion, translated by Edward Ford (2002) carried Miller’s chapter from The Books in My Life as a foreword. Miller noted that in “In Giono’s works we have the somberness of Hardy’s moors” (Miller, 103); true enough, some moments during Herman’s mad dash across England with Adelina are suffused with a gloom reminiscent of Hardy, Dickens, or Charlotte Bronte, especially when she asks the driver to make a stop so she can comfort some friends in need but the novel’s thrilling power comes from something else Miller noticed: “We no longer know, in reading his books, whether we are listening to Giono or to ourselves. We are not even aware that we are listening. We live through his words and in them, as naturally as if we were respiring at a comfortable altitude or floating on the bosom of the deep or swooping like a hawk with the downdraught of a canyon. The actions of his narratives are cushioned in the terrestrial effluvium; the machinery never grinds because it is perpetually laved by cosmic lubricants. Giono gives us men, beasts and gods––in their molecular constituency.” (Miller 109)

A gorgeous scene of Herman and Adelina riding atop the coach, exemplary of numerous pastoral moments in the novel, offers a fine illustration of the sort of things Miller was seeing in the novel:

“Morning was brushing the land the way green willow boughs brush the water’s surface. Ripples of liquid light were spreading out across the meadows and the woods, and splashing back as gold dust against the grass stems and the branches. Because of the noise of the wheels, it wasn’t possible to talk. But from time to time, when a new range of sunlit hills emerged from the mist, the two of then looked at each other.” (Giono 69)

Lyrical Giono becomes poet-magus Melville who imparts mystical Blakean visions to Adelina’s eyes and mind. Herman “started to talk about the world that lay before them,” then in a series of power verbs, he “rolled up the sky . . . rolled [it] open again.” He places the forms of nature into her hand and eye, makes “the woods come closer”; he names, fuses, summons, revolves, takes hold of, makes the world rise up, sustains it, turns it upside down and inside out, all to make “her come to life,” imagining “a world––unlike the real one––where he wouldn’t lose her.” (Giono 75)

If Melville’s powers of sight offer the aesthetic locus, Adelina’s story of her early family life, marriage, and commitment to social justice offer Herman a moral lens. Their final moments together, a noble scene upon the broad rolling sweep of the downs overlooking the River Severn estuary and Bristol Bay, the places from which departing boats will smuggle food to Ireland, are the moral and intellectual apogee of the novel. Melville’s boast that “To be a poet is to stay a step ahead of human destiny. The poet doesn’t follow; he isn’t against anything; he’s a step ahead. And he doesn’t serve” (Giono, 98) is countered and tempered by the fact that Adelina has chosen, precisely, to serve those in need, to struggle against inhuman political degradation, risking prison or worse for defying British law. Thus, Herman finally admits to her that his wrestling angel is both “guardian” and “prison guard” (Giono, 98). Indeed, the novel’s message is that we must elevate one another, as Melville and Adelina White do for each other during their brief platonic romance. The lovers’ spirits merge just as their paths diverge.

Melville, a novel about remaining true to one’s own character amid the gnawing squall of mundanities, is a sleek, sometimes uncanny, amalgamation of biography and fantasy, a pared-down modernist echo and distillation of Melville’s best compositional traits: deep learning, a brilliant, droll, insouciant voice—lusty adventurous narrator at odds with the world—breezy, stichomythic conversations, and an enthusiasm for nature, and an ability to render it in broad, luminous strokes and fine details that are inspirational, celebratory, and sacred, for one of Melville’s achievements (like Shakespeare’s Lear on the Heath, Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe and Kurtz in the Congolese rain forest, and, more recently, Peter Matthiessen’s Edgar Watson in the Florida everglades) is to test man on nature’s sacred stage.

Many of these traits that make Melville excellent and invigorating can also be found in Melville’s 1853 story “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! or The Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano.”

In addition to his many novels, Giono, as mentioned, was also the first translator into French of Moby-Dick, which he dubbed his “foreign companion.” It’s interesting to read “Cock-A-Doodle Doo!” as a potent and conspicuous influence on Melville, and the latter as an inspired response to the former, a deliberate chromatic riff on the Melvillian satirical paradox. Melville wrote the story within the lengthening shadow of diminishing reputation and growing financial strain, after Moby-Dick, after Pierre; or The Ambiguities, in the same year that he composed the bleak, utterly pessimistic, gallows humor of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a satire on transcendental solipsism, but also, probably, on his own absorption in composing his masterpiece; as Melville scholar David Dowling notes:

“There are many histories to this fine book, and Melville’s herculean effort to write Moby-Dick is certainly one of them. Like the whaling history that undergirds the tale, Melville’s personal history does not bespeak the ordinary. He often locked himself in his room without food, writing in a creative white heat until evening, when his wife and daughters would admonish him to return to the land of the living . . .”
[iv]

In an excellent 1948 essay, Egbert S. Oliver analyzed “Cock-A-Doodle Doo!” as “a satire on the buoyant transcendental principles which Melville heard echoing and reechoing in the New England hills . . . particularly, a passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry David Thoreau,” calling it “a reductio ad absurdum of the transcendental disregard of materialism.” [v] In a complementary analysis from 1970, Harold Beaver, (reader of American literature at the University of Warwick), deemed Melville’s story to be a satire of Wordsworth’s poem Resolution and Independence: “The whole of ‘Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!’ is, in effect, a parody, or paradoxical commentary on Wordsworth’s poem: both open in the ‘plashy’ or ‘squitchy’ damp, but whereas in Wordsworth a bright sun is already rising, in Melville the air is raw, misty and disagreeable;”[vi] That bright sun portends Wordsworth’s concluding revelation when he is able to behold, within the old leech gatherer’s “shape, and speech,” a spirit his younger self does not possess:

And soon with this he other matter blended,
Cheerfully uttered, with demeanour kind,
But stately in the main; and, when he ended,
I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.
“God,” said I, “be my help and stay secure;
I’ll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!”[vii]

 

Beaver continues: “Wordsworth’s opening mood is of joy, Melville’s of cynical depression; in Wordsworth joy turns to dejection, in Melville hypochondria to defiant bravado; Wordsworth ends with stoic resolution, Melville with a continual crow.” (Melville 425) Continual, indeed; throughout the story, Beneventano’s crowing is at first bracing and inspiring but then becomes incessant, absurdly irrepressible, oppressive, and deadly.

It’s also possible to read Melville as a paradoxical parable about the spiritual richness of radical optimism—certainly appealing to an exuberant bon vivant like Henry Miller—and its practical danger in the face of illness and death. Though Wordsworth could, in his famous sonnet composed on Westminster Bridge, celebrate a quiet Friday dawn in London 1802 (significantly not a Sunday but one of the busiest days of the work week) he also, in “Tintern Abbey,” famously despaired of the city

how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart)[viii]

In “Cock-A-Doodle-Do!” Melville’s narrator also rants against mid-nineteenth-century social conditions and ills: poverty, disease, financial worries, “rascally despotisms,” and “many dreadful casualties, by locomotive and steamer” (Melville 103). His avowed elixir is Beneventano’s crowing, “equal to hearing the great bell of St. Paul’s rung at a coronation! In fact, that bell ought to be taken down, and this Shanghai put in its place. Such a crow would jollify all London, from Mile-End (which is no end) to Primrose Hill (where there ain’t any primroses), and scatter the fog.”[ix] And Herman’s excursion in Melville is an extended and (temporarily) successful attempt to do just that, to quit the funk of London and head west. Giono has Melville, antsy as his Ishmael who wants to step into the street and knock mens’ hats off their heads, flee London and travel West across all of southern England, from the Thames to the Bay of Bristol, but in a sly undercutting of Melville’s disdain for trains and those who stoke them, celebrates his overland trip in rapid, rattling mail coach. Along the way, there is a thrilling and delightful near miss between the hurtling Bristol Mail and a farm cart bound for market; the scene brings to mind the wonderfully dramatic coach driving scenes in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

And it’s significant that the west, overlooking Bristol Channel is where Giono leaves Melville in England. Once that scene there is concluded, we are suddenly back in New England, and newly inspired Herman is flush with the frenetic concatenative energy that he will channel into writing Moby-Dick.

If, as Beaver claims, “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” is a satirical inversion of Resolution and Independence, we see this when Melville’s narrator describes himself as “as good a fellow as ever lived – hospitable – open-hearted – generous to a fault: and the Fates forbid that I should possess the fortune to bless the country with my bounteousness” (Melville 117). For him, Beneventano is a sort of celestial lightning rod, a vivifying clarion in effulgent plumage as Merrymusk, the rooster’s owner, confirms when asking the narrator about the cock’s majestic crowing:

“Ain’t it inspiring? Don’t it impart pluck? give stuff against despair?” (Melville 124)

And the message he interprets from Beneventano’s lusting crowing, described variously as “cheerful,” “magic,” “extraordinary,” “noble,” “a jolly bolt of thunder with bells,” “all glorious and defiant,” “a perfect paean and laudamus,” and “a trumpet blast of triumph” is “Be jolly!”

Melville is an empathetic amplification and tempered refinement of “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!”—instead of moping Melville hating the railroad and fearing his creditors who dog him even to church and tavern, Giono’s Melville, just as Henry Miller loved to be, is free and easy, away from wife and home responsibilities, flush with money, and in his independence, riding across the land (replicating American flight from London, later from New England and the East Coast), meets a woman of steadfast resolution.

Melville is about chaste, ideal, unobtainable, ultimately vanished love. Adelina enjoys Melville’s company, briefly sees the poetical wonders he conjures but the vision he receives from her is greater because he is young, flush with success, yet to be tried fully in social matters. Her craft is evading unjust laws, helping the oppressed which makes Herman’s concerns, by comparison, seem solipsistic, the very solipsism he satirizes in “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” because Melville’s strange story is also a satirical parable of sexual fancy: man’s urgent need and desire to remain hard, upright, and ejaculatory right up to the moment of death—Merrymusk and his family, and trumpeting cock Beneventano smile and crow through their misfortunes, and all perish; the blithely, blindly optimistic narrator wants to believe that their spirits defy death: he pays for their burial, family and cock together all in the same plot, headstone inscribed with the immortal rhetorical questions from Corinthians: O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Death’s victory is self-evident: the family dies of poverty, disease, and hunger, the very maladies Adelina pretends to fight against. But wagonloads of contraband wheat did not solve the Potato Famine, save millions, prevent mass exodus, or change English law. Adelina asks Herman:

“Do you remember the famine of ’46?”
“Very well. I saw the boats loaded with emigrants arriving in our country, and I brought them a good many kettles of soup myself.”
“Nothing has changed.”
“I assumed so. An entire population doesn’t stop dying of hunger all at once.”
“No, but it stops faster if you think about the starving bellies and work to fill them, instead of spending your time philosophizing about the doctrines of Adam Smith and Ricardo. I know that thousands of English men and women were in agony because they knew what was happening in the Irish cottages. You saw the boatloads of emigrants; we saw the cartloads of corpses thrown into the pits” (Giono 86-87).

Melville’s revelations with Adelina, Giono fancies, inspire a new kind of hallucinatory and amalgamative energy for him to compose Moby-Dick. Of course the novel’s epic genius and some strong reviews did not sustain Melville’s good fortunes or keep the hellhounds (literary and otherwise) off his trail. From there, Giono hastens Melville to his final end—somberly, soberly, but gently, too, and no less reflective. Melville keeps writing after Moby-Dick to ever-diminishing enthusiasm, including close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s embarrassment about Pierre. And though Harold Beaver affirms that “Moby-Dick marks not the end but the middle of Melville’s miraculous span” and “astonishing creative outpouring,” he also notes that the novel’s reception was “disheartening”: “Two years after the publication of Moby-Dick, he was still in debt to Harpers for 700 dollars advance royalties,” and that in 1855 “after the failure of Israel Potter, Putnam’s associate editor, G.W. Curtis had advised [Harper’s] new publisher, J. A. Dix ‘to decline any novel from Melville which is not extremely good’” (Melville 10-12).

Ultimately, though, Giono’s Melville is fantasia, a confection, not biography. And perhaps what really elevated the novel for the supremely solipsistic Henry Miller, paradoxical misogynistic woman(izer) worshipper so anxious to get Giono into readers’ hands, perhaps what taught him to appreciate Melville was that the imaginary Herman’s final concern is not so much his writing or his general reputation but whether ardent Adelina White—who writes him a few precious letters from England, and then no more—ever read and was ever captivated by Moby-Dick the way that he was captivated by her.

 

*

 

Works Cited

[i] Miller, Henry. The Books in My Life. New Directions Publishing, 1952, via Internet Archive PDF (Digitized 2008).

[ii] Giono, Jean. Melville – A Novel (Introduction by Edmund White), trans. Paul Eprile. New York Review Book, 2017.

[iii] Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. W. W. Norton & Company, 1967, p.76

[iv] Dowling, David. Chasing the White Whale – The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today. University of Iowa Press, 2010.

[v] Oliver, Egbert S. “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” and Transcendental Hocus-Pocus, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun., 1948), pp. 204-216

[vi]Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. Edited and with an introduction by Harold Beaver, Penguin English Library, 1970, p. 425.

[vii] Wordsworth, William. “Resolution and Independence.” English Romantic Writers, edited by David Perkins. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1967, pp. 284-85.

[viii] Wordsworth, William. “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” English Romantic Writers, edited by David Perkins. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1967, p. 209-211.

[ix] Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. Edited and with an introduction by Harold Beaver, Penguin English Library, 1970.



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