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Posts Tagged ‘Annie Ernaux’

A Man’s Place‘ is Annie Ernaux’ ode to her father. In the book about her mother, Annie Ernaux compares her father and mother and says this :

“He took me to the funfair, to the circus, and to see Fernandel’s films. He taught me how to ride a bicycle and recognize the garden vegetables. With him I had fun, with her I had “conversations”.”

Ernaux expands on that in this book, by going back to the beginning, to her grandparents’ time, describes the environment her father grew up in, how her grandfather hated people who read because he himself couldn’t read or write, how her father did well in school but was still taken off school when he was around twelve years old and made to work in a farm and earn his keep. And how because of this Ernaux’ father always wanted her to do well academically and was proud of her achievements.

A Man’s Place‘ takes us back to a different era, to early twentieth century France and makes us see the world through the eyes of a twelve year old boy who becomes a farmworker, then a factory worker, who fights in the First World War and later gets into the grocery and cafe business with his wife. I liked it very much. Though I liked Ernaux’ book on her mother, ‘A Woman’s Story‘ even more, ‘A Man’s Place‘ complements that perfectly, as we get to know about Ernaux’ father.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“He had to walk two kilometres to get to school…The teacher was a harsh man, rapped the boys’ fingers with an iron ruler, he was respected. Some of his pupils ended up among the best in their canton to have passed their primary certificate; one or two even made it to teachers’ training college. My father missed class when he had to harvest the apples, tie the straw and hay into sheaves, and sow and reap whatever was in season. When he and his elder brother went back to school, the master would yell : “So your parents want you to remain as ignorant as they are!” He managed to learn how to read and write properly. He liked learning. He liked drawing too…At the age of twelve, he was due to take the primary certificate. My grandfather took him out of school and got him a job on the same farm as him. He could no longer be fed without paying his way. “We didn’t even think about it, it was the same for everyone.””

“…it took me years to ‘understand’ the kindliness with which well-mannered people greet each other. At first, I felt ashamed, I didn’t deserve such consideration. Sometimes I thought they had conceived a particular liking for me. Later I realized that their smiling faces and kind, earnest questions meant nothing more to them than eating with their mouth shut or blowing their noses discreetly.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Man’s Place’ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘A Man’s Place‘? What do you think about it?

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In ‘A Girl’s Story‘, Annie Ernaux takes us to the time when she was eighteen years old, when she had just graduated from high school and was joining a summer camp as one of the group leaders. It was the first time in her life she was staying away from her family, especially away from the constant gaze of her mother. How this sudden freedom impacts her life, how she is able to stay up late, go to movies, drink with friends, act on her feelings of desire for the first time, and how she lost her innocence and virginity – all these are told in the first part of the book. The second part of the book talks about her time after camp, when she tries to train to become a teacher and how it doesn’t work for her, and how she leaves that and goes to London with one of her friends to work as an au pair and how she comes back after that and enrolls in university to pursue the study of literature.

A Girl’s Story‘ is different from other Ernaux books in three ways. It is double the size of other slim Ernaux books. It has a new translator, Alison L. Strayer. (I miss Tanya Leslie). The most significant difference though is this. In this book Annie Ernaux has clearly amped up her prose. There are sentences like this :

“But she, no doubt, was forgotten more quickly, like an anomaly, a breach of common sense, a form of chaos or absurdity, something laughable it would be ridiculous to tax their memories with.”

And this :

“But what is the point of writing if not to unearth things, or even just one thing that cannot be reduced to any kind of psychological or sociological explanation and is not the result of a preconceived idea or demonstration but a narrative : something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded and can help us understand – endure – events that occur and the things that we do?”

I don’t know whether this is because Annie Ernaux changed her writing style, or whether the new translator rendered it this way. I am leaning more towards the first, though the second one could be the truth. I love the new style, the long sentences and the beautiful prose, but they feel very un-Ernaux. One part of me, the Ernaux fan in me, misses the prose of early Ernaux, the short sentences, and the deceptively simple prose which was powerful.

I enjoyed reading ‘A Girl’s Story‘. It is about a time when a girl becomes a young woman and the kind of changes she goes through as a person and how she navigates that transformation. I liked the way Ernaux looks back at her past and treats her past self as a different person and tries to look at that person from the distance of perspective that time gives. It is fascinating to read.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about ‘the girl of ’58’, as I very soon began to call her. Someday there will be no one left to remember. What that girl and no other experienced will remain unexplained, will have been lived for no reason.
No other writing project seems to me as – I wouldn’t say luminous, or new, and certainly not joyful, but vital : it allows me to rise above time. The very thought of ‘just enjoying life’ is unbearable. Every moment lived without a writing project resembles the last.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Girl’s Story’ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘A Girl’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the third consecutive Annie Ernaux book I’ve read. In ‘Happening‘, Annie Ernaux takes us back to the year 1963. She is a young university student. She is 23-years old. One day she discovers that she is pregnant. She doesn’t want to have the baby. There is one small problem though. Abortion is illegal in France. Doctors don’t even mention the word while speaking to patients. Doctors can go to jail and be permanently barred from practising medicine, if it is revealed that they helped a pregnant woman in any small way to get an abortion. As Ernaux tries to come to terms with her condition and tries to deal with the situation, she finds that people around her can’t be relied upon. But she also finds help in unexpected quarters, especially from a religious classmate who thinks that abortion is evil. As every kind of method to induce a miscarriage – including medicines, injections and even inserting a knitting needle inside herself – fails, Annie Ernaux is pushed into a situation of finding an abortionist who is working outside the confines of the law. If she or the abortionist are caught, they both will go to jail. What happens after that is told in the rest of the book.

Happening‘ is a powerful, moving book. Though it talks of a time which is nearly sixty years back, and we have come a long way since, as the law has changed and abortion is not illegal anymore in many places, in practice things are still complex and freedom of choice exists only on paper. Ernaux’ book describes how things were once upon a time, and how she survived to tell the tale, and she further goes on to ask some tough questions.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The fact that my personal experience of abortion, i.e. clandestinity, is a thing of the past does not seem a good enough reason to dismiss it. Paradoxically, when a new law abolishing discrimination is passed, former victims tend to remain silent on the grounds that ‘now it’s all over’. So what went on is surrounded by the same veil of secrecy as before. Today abortion is no longer outlawed and this is precisely why I can afford to steer clear of the social views and inevitably stark formulas of the rebel Seventies – ‘abuse against women’, etc. – and face the reality of this unforgettable event.”

“Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalauréat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.”

“Girls like me were a waste of time for doctors. With no money and no connections – otherwise we wouldn’t accidentally end up on their doorstep – we were a constant reminder of the law that could send them to prison and close down their practice for good. They would never tell us the truth, that they weren’t prepared to sacrifice their career for some young doe-eyed damsel foolish enough to get knocked up. Or maybe their sense of duty was such that they would have chosen to die rather than break a law that could cost women their lives. They must have assumed that most women would go through the abortion anyway, in spite of the ban. All in all, plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career.”

“The law was everywhere. In the euphemisms and understatements of my journal; the so-called forced marriages; the shame of women who aborted and the disapproval of those who did not. In the sheer impossibility of ever imagining that one day women might be able to abort freely. As was often the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.”

“The next morning I was back in my room, which I’d left early the previous afternoon with all my books for class. The bed was neatly made, nothing had been touched and almost a whole day had gone by. This is the sort of detail that tells us our life is beginning to fall apart.”

Happening‘ is a powerful book and is a must read. I am glad I read it.

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘Happening‘ I read was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Have you read ‘Happening‘? What do you think about it?

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I Remain in Darkness‘ by Annie Ernaux is kind of a sequel to Annie Ernaux’ book about her mother, ‘A Woman’s Story‘. In this book Ernaux describes the last two-and-a-half years of her mother’s life, when her mother had Alzheimer’s and had to be admitted to a nursing home. The book is in the form of a journal. On the title – ‘I Remain in Darkness‘ were the last words that Ernaux’ mother ever wrote.

Annie Ernaux’ book is moving and poignant and sad. It is hard to watch Ernaux’ mother who was a dynamic, strong woman descend into Alzheimer’s and become someone who can no longer remember her daughter and her family. When Ernaux describes the time when her mother can no longer eat a piece of cake herself because her hand cannot find her mouth, we feel devastated.

This book made me remember Erwin Mortier’s book about his mother, ‘Stammered Songbook : A Mother’s Book of Hours‘, which is on the exact same topic – about Mortier’s mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. I felt that Mortier’s prose was poetic, while Ernaux’ prose was spare and meditative, though both were beautiful in their own ways.

Anyone who is or has been the caregiver of their aged parents would be able to relate to Ernaux’ book and would be moved powerfully by it. I was. The anxiety, the worry, the guilt, the anger, the love – Annie Ernaux describes them all perfectly.

I loved ‘I Remain in Darkness‘ though it was not always easy to read, and it was sometimes moving and sometimes heartbreaking.

Have you read ‘I Remain in Darkness‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Annie Ernaux‘ ‘A Woman’s Story‘ many years back through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) review of it. I finally got around to reading it.

In this short book, which runs to 90 pages, Annie Ernaux describes the life of her mother, from the time she was born, her childhood, how she stopped going to school when she was twelve and went to work, her teens, her marriage, her ambition to run her own grocery store, how she navigated the war years, the time when Annie Ernaux was born, the relationship between mother and daughter, and on towards the final years when her mother had Alzheimer’s. It is hard to believe that the book is so slim, because Ernaux packs so much in it. The story of how her mother rose from poverty to make something of her life is so inspiring to read.

The book is Ernaux’ beautiful love letter to her mother. It is also an insightful portrayal of the history of France of the 20th century, if we choose to look at it that way – not the glitzy, glamorous France of the popular imagination, but the real France with real people like Annie Ernaux’ mother. The central theme of the book is, of course, the relationship between Annie Ernaux and her mother, which is beautiful and complex, loving and exasperating at the same time, the way relationships between close family members are.

Annie Ernaux’ prose is spare but it also has a calm, serene, meditative quality to it, which is almost like reading a Zen monk’s spiritual account. It is fascinating and surprising, because the first line of the book starts with “My mother died on Monday 7 April…”

I loved ‘A Woman’s Story‘. I’m looking forward to reading more books by Annie Ernaux soon.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“One could tell whether she was upset simply by looking at her face. In private she didn’t mince her words and told us straight out what she thought. She called me a beast, a slut, and a bitch, or told me I was “unpleasant”. She would often hit me, usually by slapping my face, or occasionally punching my shoulders. Five minutes later, she would take me into her arms and I was her “poppet.”
She bought me toys and books under any pretext, a party, a trip into town, or a slight temperature. She took me to the dentist’s, the lung specialist, and made sure I had good shoes, warm clothes, and all the right stationery I needed for class (she had enrolled me at a private establishment run by nuns, and not at the local primary school). If I mentioned that one of the other girls had an unbreakable slate, she would immediately ask me if I wanted one : “I wouldn’t want them to think you’re not as good as the others.” Her overriding concern was to give me everything she hadn’t had. But this involved so much work, so much worrying about money, and an approach to children’s happiness so radically different from her own education, that she couldn’t help saying : “You know, we spend a lot of money on you” or “Look at everything you’ve got, and you’re still not happy!”

“I thought her a cut above my father because she seemed closer to the schoolmistresses and teachers than he did. Everything about my mother – her authority, her hopes, and her ambitions – was geared to the very concept of education. We shared an intimacy centered on books, the poetry I read to her, and the pastries in the teashop at Rouen, from which he was excluded. He took me to the funfair, to the circus, and to see Fernandel’s films. He taught me how to ride a bicycle and recognize the garden vegetables. With him I had fun, with her I had “conversations”. Of the two, she was the dominating figure, the one who represented authority.”

I read this for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month’ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. The edition of ‘A Woman’s Story‘ I read was published by Seven Stories Press.

Have you read Annie Ernaux’A Woman’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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I remember the time, not long time back, when Annie Ernaux was virtually unknown in the English speaking world. Though she was well known in France and her works were acclaimed, outside her French readership, she was virtually unknown. For a long time, the only review of Annie Ernaux that I had seen on the internet was this one by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’. It was a review of Ernaux’ ‘A Woman’s Story‘.

This is surprising, because Ernaux has been translated into English for a while now. The earliest translation of her work appeared in English in the early ’90s (I think it was ‘La Place‘ which was translated into English as ‘A Man’s Place‘ and came out in 1990), and the translations of her books were favourably reviewed. But still, she was virtually unknown. A small indie publisher called Seven Stories Press published Ernaux’ books in English and kept the flame burning for years. Translator Tanya Leslie did all the initial translations and kept the fire burning. Then Ernaux’ memoir ‘The Years‘ was translated into English in 2017, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and suddenly everyone was reading it, and at the grand old age of 80, after being around in the literary arena for a long, long time, Annie Ernaux suddenly became an international literary star.

These days Ernaux’ books are published by both Seven Stories Press and by Fitzcarraldo Editions in English. The two editions look very different – the Seven Stories edition has a beautiful picture on the cover, it is bigger, the pages have lots of surround spacing while the Fitzcarraldo edition has the standard white cover and look-and-feel that Fitzcarraldo editions have. I love both the editions, but I’ll always have a soft corner for the Seven Stories edition for keeping the Annie Ernaux flame burning across the years and decades. You can see both the editions in the picture below.

Annie Ernaux is odd for a writer. While most writers work in a particular area and publish a memoir or two, Ernaux writes only memoirs. After her initial foray into fiction at the beginning of her career, she moved away and opted to write only memoirs. I counted atleast eighteen of them. There is no one like her. The closest I can think of is Diana Athill, who wrote multiple volumes of memoirs.

I am happy that Annie Ernaux is famous these days and has become a literary star. Her fame is well deserved. But one part of me also feels sad because she was a closely guarded secret by some of us old fans, for a long time, but now the secret of her greatness is out in the open.

I wrote this post for ‘Reading Independent Publishers Month‘ hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, an event which celebrates indie publishers for the whole of February. I also wanted to write a fan’s love letter to Annie Ernaux.

Have you read Annie Ernaux’ books? Which is your favourite book of hers?

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Well, it is Christmas time and what makes us happier than new books 😊 This year after resisting temptation for most of the year and buying books only occasionally, I couldn’t resist it anymore and the dam broke, and I went crazy 😁 I blame it on the holiday season – something in the air makes us let our guard down. This is the second part of the new book arrivals.

(1) The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – I got this as a present from one of my favourite friends. It looks very beautiful. I don’t know whether Laing focuses on the pain of loneliness or on the bliss of solitude. I hope it is the second one. I can’t wait to read it. I got a beautiful cat bookmark too 😊

(2) Two Brian Dillon books – I included Brian Dillon’s ‘Suppose a Sentence‘ in my previous post. Couldn’t resist featuring it here too. I also got his memoir ‘In the Dark Room‘ and his famous ‘Essayism‘ (not featured here, but in my Kindle)

(3) The Years by Annie Ernaux – I have wanted to get Ernaux’ memoir for a while. It is all the rage these days, and I can’t wait to read it. I’m happy that at the grand age of eighty, she has become a literary superstar.

(4) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis – This was an impulse buy. It looked funny and I couldn’t resist it. It will be my first Kingsley Amis book when I read it.

(5) Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann – More Thomas Mann 😊 This one is a fictionalized imagining of the grown-up Lotte going to meet Goethe. I can’t wait to read it.

(6) Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves – After reading Edmund Blunden’s First World War memoir, I decided to get Graves’ more famous one. Just started it. It is wonderful.

(7) Night of the Restless Spirits by Sarbpreet Singh – This is a collection of stories set during the 1984 riots in Delhi. This is one of the most shameful, violent and tragic episodes in recent Indian history, and this book promises to be heartbreaking.

(8) Spirit of Cricket by Mike Brearley – Brearley’s newest book. He was one of the great cricket captains during his time, and is one of the finest cricket writers now. He is one of my favourite writers and I can’t wait to read this.

(9) A Sound Mind by Paul Morley – This was highly recommended by Kaggsy (You can find her short review here and longer review here). I love books on classical music and this promises to be interesting. I am looking forward to long pleasurable hours of reading the book and listening to the classical music compositions that it recommends. I also went and got Morley’s memoir ‘The North‘ (on the Kindle, so not featured here).

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them? What books did you buy or did you get as presents for Christmas?

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‘Simple Passion’ by Annie Ernaux was one of the books mentioned in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ ‘One Hundred Great French Books’. I haven’t heard of Annie Ernaux before and so I decided to try this book. I read it in one sitting and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Simple Passion By Annie Ernaux

‘Simple Passion’, at around sixty pages, is not really a novel. With wide spacing between lines and with luxurious space on the borders of the page, it could be called, at best, a novella or probably a long short story. It is not clear from the book whether it is fiction or a memoir. The classification on the back cover says ‘Literature / Memoir’. The narrator of the book describes the affair she once had with a married man from a different country who was working in Paris. The only way they communicated was by phone when the man called her and told her he was going to visit her. She then waited for him to visit, anxiously preparing herself – getting the right clothes, wearing the right makeup, getting food and drink for the evening, preparing herself emotionally – but also looking forward to the visit with a lot of excitement. But then he comes, they have intimate moments together, he leaves and then she is worn out. And she starts the long agonizing wait for the next phone call from him. At some point she stops seeing her friends, going out for movies or having any kind of social life as she is waiting for her lover’s phone call, when she is not working (this was during the days before the advent of the mobile phone). The narrator’s thoughts about this whole affair comprise the rest of the book.

 

‘Simple Passion’ is an interesting book. There is not much of a plot here – the plot can be told in two lines. The book is mostly about the narrator’s thoughts on life, love, longing, waiting, the agony of parting. I am pretty sure it will deeply resonate with anyone who has had an affair or even with anyone who has ever been in love. Annie Ernaux’s prose is spare and simple, but there are beautiful sentences in every page. Though I read it in one sitting, I read it very slowly and enjoyed lingering over those beautiful sentences. For example, she describes the brief time she spends with her lover as :

 

An interval of time squeezed in between two car noises – his Renault 25 braking, then driving off again

 

And she describes her feelings after her lover leaves like this :

 

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away. I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum.

 

In another place the narrator describes how she used to shop for new outfits to look beautiful for her lover when he visited her the next time :

 

In his absence, I was only happy when I was out buying new dresses, earrings, stockings, and trying them on at home in front of the mirror – the ideal, quite impossible, being that he should see me each time in a different outfit. He would only glimpse my new blouse or pumps for a couple of minutes before they were discarded in some corner until he left. Of course I realized how pointless new clothes were in the event of his feeling desire for another woman. But presenting myself in clothes he had already seen seemed a mistake, a slackening in the quest for perfection for which I strove in my relationship with him.

 

In another place the narrator talks about the imperfection of communication with her lover and how paradoxically, this imperfection is sometimes perfect.

 

At first I was discouraged by the obvious limitations of our exchanges. These were emphasized by the fact that, although he spoke fairly good French, I could not express myself in his language. Later I realized that this situation spared me the illusion that we shared a perfect relationship, or even formed a whole. Because his French strayed slightly from standard use and because I occasionally had doubts about the meaning he gave to words, I was able to appreciate the approximate quality of our conversations. From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end : the man we love is a complete stranger.

 

Sometimes we think that writing about something which affected us deeply helps us make sense of it and is therapeutic, but the narrator of the story says something different :

 

I know full well that I can expect nothing from writing, which, unlike real life, rules out the unexpected. To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, feelings I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion and writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgment and the “normal” values of society. (Having to answer questions such as “Is it an autobiography?” and having to justify this or that may have stopped many books from seeing the light of day, except in the form of a novel, which succeeds in saving appearances.)

      At this point, sitting in front of the pages covered in my indecipherable scrawlings, which only I can interpret, I can still believe this is something private, almost childish, of no consequence whatsoever – like the declarations of love and the obscene expressions I used to write on the back of my exercise books in class, or anything else one may write calmly, in all impunity, when there is no risk of it being read. Once I start typing out the text, once it appears before me in public characters, I shall be through with innocence.

 

Annie Ernaux ends the book with this beautiful passage :

 

When I was a child, luxury was fur coats, evening dresses, and villas by the sea. Later on, I thought it meant leading the life of an intellectual. Now I feel that it is also being able to live out a passion for a man or a woman.

 

I have to say that I have got the ‘leading the life of an intellectual’ part right – so I can say that my life is filled with luxury, in a way 🙂

 

‘Simple Passion’ is a beautiful, slim gem. It is a book to be savoured over a winter evening warming oneself next to a fire having a drink. Or alternately, it can be savoured on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set, while sitting outdoors in the garden and sipping a delicious cup of tea. I want to read other books of Annie Ernaux now.

 

Have you read ‘Simple Passion’ by Annie Ernaux? What do you think about it?

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