Contemporary Russian Novelists
by Serge Persky
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[17] Refers to Solomon.



As we have already noted in the first chapter of this book, Russian literature from 1830 to 1905 is distinctly different from European literature: it is, above all, a literature of action and social propagandas which puts the popular cause in the place of prominence.

This cause has been abandoned by several writers during the last few years. From 1905 to 1910, an evolution, accelerated by the most audacious hopes and the most lively beliefs, has transformed the story and the novel, and has brought to the front certain authors who, up to this time, had scarcely been known. It seems as if suddenly the ancient tradition of Russian literature had been broken. Contrary to the rule of their predecessors, whose thoughts were on justice and liberty, and whose works breathe forth a wholesome quality, a large number of the present writers have been gradually attracted by metaphysical questions, which fill their works with a veritable chaos of morbid conceptions and disenchantment. Some express with acuteness man's unconquerable fear of life or death; others treat of the divine or satanic principles in man; still others study, with a sickly passion, the problems of the flesh in all of its manifestations.[18]

[18] Happily, this literary crisis seems to have been ephemeral. Since the beginning of 1910, according to a Russian critic, "the salubrity of the atmosphere" has been accomplished. The "cursed questions" are less prominent in recent works, and it seems that the crisis which desolated Russian literature for several years has come to an end, and that the writers are going back to the old traditions of Russian literature.

Among the latter, Michael Artzybashev is a writer of great breadth, whose erotic tendencies have spoiled some of his best traits. His novel, "Sanine," which recently caused so much talk, pretends to paint the youth of to-day in Russia. If we believed the author, we should conclude that the above-mentioned youth consisted of hysterical people in whom chastity was the least of virtues.

The heroes of his novel are two representatives of the revolutionary youth, Sanine and Yuri Svagorich. Both of them have deserted "the cause," Sanine, through lassitude, and Yuri, who has met nothing but a despairing indifference among those whom he wanted to save from "the oppression of the shadows," through scorn. Yuri, "a man of the past," is an "intellectual" entirely impregnated with generous altruism, haunted by social and political preoccupations. But he is also a "failure" who falls from one deception into another, because he is thoroughly powerless to combat life.

On the other hand, his friend, Vladimir Sanine, "the man of the future," is, without a doubt, capable of living. None is freer than he from all social and political preoccupations, and none is more than he resolved to obey only his lucid egotism, or the suggestions of his instincts.

These two young fellows meet, one summer, in the country. Yuri lives with his father, a retired colonel; Sanine, with his mother. Sanine's sister, Lida, is in love with the officer Zaroudine, who abandons her later when she is with child. Lida wants to commit suicide, but Sanine stops her and proposes that she marry Dr. Novikov, who has been in love with her for a long time. Parallel to the history of Lida, the life story of Karsavina is presented. Yuri falls in love with this young and pretty school-teacher. But, although she returns Yuri's love, the young girl, in a moment of passion, gives herself to Sanine, whom she does not love. Disgusted with life, feeling himself weak, neurasthenic, and sick, Yuri, only twenty-six years of age, commits suicide. Karsavina, terribly affected by this act of despair, leaves Sanine. And the latter, after Yuri's funeral, disappears from the city....

All the characters in the book, from Sanine to Karsavina, are continually preyed upon by carnal desires. Long passages of funereal scenes alternate with pictures of the transports of love and the descriptions of masculine and feminine bodies. "Your body proclaims the truth, your reason lies." This is the "leitmotiv" of all the theories that the characters in the book preach.

Let us hasten to add to the praise of the Russian public, that the enormous success of "Sanine" was not justified by the extreme licentiousness of the book, but by the eloquence with which the author claims the right of free love for man and woman.

Although its success was less than that of "Sanine," Artzybashev's second novel, "Morning Shadows," is more interesting and is more realistic than his first.

Tired of their sometimes happy, sometimes monotonous existence, two young people from the provinces, Lisa and Dora, go to St. Petersburg to take some courses there and to join the revolutionary movement. They have read Nietzsche, and want to "live dangerously." In order to realize this project, Lisa has not hesitated to break off her engagement with the charming and naive Lieutenant Savinov. However, their existence in the capital is nothing but a long and bitter deception: Dora's literary ambitions disappointed! the love of Lisa, who has given herself to the student Korenyev, disappointed! In a fit of despair Lisa kills herself, and her friend, who has not had the courage to follow her example, falls victim to a terrorist outrage which the author describes with rare power.

In his recent novel, "Before Expiration,"—which recalls "Sanine" to our minds again,—Artzybashev has found some ingenious variations on the old theme, "love and death." The story of the love affairs of the painter Mikhailov, a cynical and brutal Lovelace who abandons his mistresses when they are with child, is intermingled incessantly with gloomy episodes, such as the agonies of an old man or of a child. It is a book for "blase" people, a book which a reader with moral health will not read without a certain feeling of uneasiness.

We are also indebted to Artzybashev for a series of highly colored stories. "Sub-Lieutenant Golobov," "Blood," "The Workingman Shevshrev," and "The Millions" are some of the most remarkable.

* * * * *

Like Artzybashev, but with less talent, Anatol Kamensky has written little stories happily enough conceived. Thus, "Laida"—the story of a worldly woman so taken up with liberty that she exhibits herself nude before her husband's guests. Another story called "Four," tells of four women taken from the most diverse social classes, ranging from a young school-girl to the wife of a clergyman, who give themselves to an officer at the end of a trip of twenty-four hours. Then there is also the story of a woman who proposes to an unknown man that he should play a game of cards with her companions, she being the prize. This story is called "The Game." Finally, there is the story of a young man whose agreeable profession consists in living among others gratuitously and in seducing women under the eyes of their husbands.

These stories are sadly spoiled by a crude philosophy and by "anarchistic" protestations against present values.

* * * * *

Certain authors wander into far-away countries for their subjects: to Sodom and Lesbos. The best known is Michael Kouzmine. This writer, who happily began with stories of the Orient in the Middle Ages, has now acquired a rather sad renown for himself with his story called "The Wings," which appeared at the end of 1906. The scandalous success which this book won, encouraged the author to go on in the same manner. In poor verse, and especially in the story, "The Castle of Cards," Kouzmine has exalted the sin of Sodom as being the most supreme form of aesthetic emotions.

* * * * *

Closely related to these writers, although surpassing them all in original talent, Feodor Sologoub is the most intellectual and subtle of the Russian modernists. His principal work consists in depicting the small provincial towns. His heroes are little bourgeois petty officials, school-teachers, and country proprietors.

This chanter of birth and death, disgusted by the banality of existence, has given us, under the title, "The Little Demon," a pathetic picture of human baseness and sordidness, which cannot be read without emotion.

The atmosphere of an arbitrary regime engenders almost always "demonomania." The insecurity of life, and the consecutive injustices in the cavils of the police administration, develop in society a reciprocal fear and distrust. From feeling themselves in danger of being denounced and menaced in their liberty, men rapidly become the prey of terror. And the terrible life, sooner or later, awakens demoniacal terror among the weak. But people of this sort are legion in Russia, and Peredonov, the hero of "The Little Demon," represents this class so graphically that to-day Russian historians and authors designate the era from 1880 to 1905 by the name "peredonovchina." The following is a brief outline of the story:

Peredonov is a school-teacher in a provincial town. His fondest dream is to be nominated primary inspector. He lives with his mistress, the old dressmaker, Varvara by name. One of his mistress's clients, a virtuous and philanthropic princess, makes him understand, one day, that she will have him nominated if he marries Varvara. Peredonov does not love his mistress; he simply lives with her from habit and because she bears, without complaining too much, his coarseness, his cavilling, and his bad humor. However, he will marry her if the princess can get him the position he desires. But will the princess keep her word? It is some time since she has let herself be heard from. What is to be done?

"Marry," says his friend Routilov to him, when he is told the condition of things. "I have three sisters," he continues. "Choose the one you like best and marry her immediately. Thus Varvara will know nothing and cannot throw any obstacles in the way."

"Done!" cries Peredonov, who has known the three sisters for a long time. He chooses the youngest, Valerie.

"Go and tell her about it. I will wait for you in the hall and then we'll go to the priest's together."

Alone, Peredonov again muses: "Doubtless, Valerie is pretty and I shall be happy to have her as my wife. But she is young, pretentious; she will demand lots of new clothes, she will want to go out a lot, in fact, so much that I'll not be able to lay anything aside. Moreover, she'll not look after the kitchen, I'll have poor food, and the cook will rob us." Anguish seizes him. He knocks at the window, calls his friend, and says:

"I've changed my mind."

"Ah!" exclaimed the other, horrified.

"Yes, I have reflected, and I have decided that I prefer the second, Lyoudmila."

Lyoudmila consents, for, besides his personal fortune, Peredonov occupies an enviable position, and the sisters are poor. She hurriedly gets dressed; in a quarter of an hour she will be ready to accompany him to the priest's.

However, Peredonov reflects: "Lyoudmila is pretty and plump; she doubtless has a perfect body, but she is always jolly, she loves to laugh. She will laugh incessantly and will make her husband seem ridiculous." Full of fear, he knocks at the window: "I have reflected," he cries. "I prefer the oldest, Darya."

"What an awful man!" cries his friend. "Hurry up, Darya, or he'll leave all of us in the lurch."

Again Peredonov reflects: "Darya is nice, not young any more, and economical; she knows life. But ... she is decisive in her resolutions, and she has an energetic character. She is not the kind who would listen to my observations. She could make life hard for me, and use me ill. Frankly, do I have to marry any of the three sisters? What will the princess say when she hears of my marriage? And my position as inspector? How stupid it is to stand waiting in this court! Without a doubt, Routilov ensnared me. I've got to get out of this at any cost!"

He spits on all sides to conjure up the spirits, then knocks at the window, and tells the amazed family:

"I am going away.... I have thought it over. I don't want to get married."

Meanwhile, his position in school becomes intolerable; complaints are registered against him; he is reproached with having ill-treated and even with having beaten the poor children, and with treating the noble and rich children with too much respect. His ridiculous and evil passions cause him to be detested by all. Luckily, he will soon be nominated inspector, and then he will say good-bye to all this riff-raff. In the meantime, Varvara writes a letter, filled with the most alluring promises, to which she signs the princess's name, and has it mailed from St. Petersburg. Peredonov is at the height of joy; but, being a prudent man, he does not want to marry before he has received the nomination. He waits and waits for it, and, meanwhile, he is not even sure of his position in the school. He discovers enemies everywhere, and believes there are always spies at his heels. In order to cajole the administration, he begins to frequent the church, and to pay visits to the city authorities. He assures the chief of police of his respect, and, in order to give a glaring proof of his devotion to the established institutions, he lodges information against a school-mistress of the locality. But still the nomination does not come, and he lives in a continual trance. The evil in him increases. He torments beasts and human beings. He whips his pupils, throws nettles at his cat, and maltreats his cook. He believes himself more and more in the power of the demon, and terrible visions follow him:

"He saw running before him, a little, grey, noisy beast. It sneered, its head trembled, and it ran quickly around Peredonov. When he wanted to seize it, it escaped under the cupboard, only to reappear a moment later...."

This strange book, written with rare perfection, had a great success. To several readers who thought that they recognized the author himself in the person of Peredonov (Sologoub had had the same position as his hero for several years) the author replied in the preface of a recent edition, by these malicious lines:

"Men like to be loved. They adore noble and elevated descriptions and portrayals. They even search among the scum for a 'divine spark.' They also are surprised and offended when any one offers them a veracious and sombre picture. And most of them then do not fail to declare: 'The author has described himself in his work.' But no, my dear friends and readers, it is you, and only you, whom I have painted in my book, 'The Little Demon.'"

In "The Charms of Navii" Sologoub happily blends fantasy and reality. Revolutionary meetings alternate with improbable hypnotic seances, and terrible corteges of corpses contrast violently with scenes of platonic and ethereal love.

The plot of the story, "The Old Home," is not less distressing than the preceding one. A young revolutionary, condemned to death by court-martial, has been executed, but for his dear ones this death has never been a reality. His mother and sister, and even the old servant, have not the strength to admit his disappearance. They wait and wait for his return until their own death carries them off.

Another story, "The Crowd," shows us a "fair" at which pewter goblets are being given away. These so excite the greediness of the crowd that a fray results, in which three children are seriously wounded. While dying, the unfortunates have terrible visions of life and humanity. "It seemed to them that ferocious demons were chuckling and sneering silently behind human faces. And this masquerade lasted so long that the poor little tots thought that it would never end...."

Sologoub is, above all, a chanter of death. Almost all of his works unveil a murder, suicide, or madness. Moreover, the author, who shows only the injustices, evils, and infamy of life, and who affirms that the only happiness that he foresees for man is the possibility of "creating for himself a chimera" by turning away from reality, finds the clearest colors and the sweetest expressions in speaking of death.

"There is not a surer and more tender friend on earth than death," says one of his heroes. "And if men fear the name of death, it is because they do not know that it is the real life, eternal and invariable. Life deceives very often, death never. It is sweet to think of death, as it is to think of a dear friend, distant and yet always close at hand.... One forgets all in the arms of the consoling angel, the angel of death."

The ever supremely correct and beautiful language of Sologoub shows the power of a master, and it is most regrettable that an artist of his merit should confine himself to so morbid an art.

* * * * *

These then are the principal authors—some of whom have enjoyed an immense popularity—who treat the "cursed questions:" the rights of the flesh, the problem of death, and other equally "cursed" problems.

The other writers are principally occupied with social questions, and, without rigorously following in the steps of their predecessors, remain, however, most of the time, realists.

Among these, Sergyev-Tzensky occupies a prominent place. The stories of this writer show us beings who seem strangers to what is going on around them. This peculiarity comes from the fact that Tzensky does not understand the physical facts in the same way that the naturalists do. For him, they are the manifestations of the will of a supernatural entity, incomprehensible, inconceivable, and, at the same time, clearly hostile to man.

His story, "The Sadness of the Fields," testifies to this singular conception. A farmer and his wife, good and peaceful people, have for many years wished for a child. Up to this time, the six children which the mother has given birth to have died in their infancy. They are anxiously awaiting the seventh. Will this one live? Will not the sadness of the fields, which puts its imprint on everything, kill it as it has killed the others? Alas! the child is not viable, and the mother dies in child-birth. They are buried, and "the fields and the surrounding country forever keep their powerful and mysterious melancholy."

"The Fluctuation" is one of the most curious and beautiful of all of Tzensky's stories. Anton Antonovich, a rich and enterprising merchant, of a very violent and unruly character, lives like a wolf in his domains, alone with his family, without seeing any of his neighbors. The peasants detest him. As his partners and helpers, he always engages nonentities, without power of initiative, who blindly follow his orders. Intellectual and energetic men cannot get along with him. Men, beasts, and nature in its entirety, are considered by this man as having been especially created for his service. The one end of his life is wealth and power. The only beings he loves are his wife and his three sons; but even they have to bow down to his will.

One day, he buys some straw and insures it against fire. Sometime later, it burns. They accuse him of having been the incendiary. Ridiculous accusation! He is a millionaire and the straw barely cost a few hundred rubles. The old man makes fun of the whole affair; he insults the judge, his own lawyer, and even the jury. He feels the impending misfortune, but his inborn violence carries him away from prudence. He is condemned to hard labor and he succumbs to a sickness that he has been feeling coming on for a long time. He had made a pillager's nest for himself, and he died like a pillager, abandoned even by those who were dear to him.

In Tzensky's short stories, "I Shall Soon Die," "Diphtheria," "Tedium," and "The Masks," there is something mysterious, fatal, and terrible that constantly surrounds his people. As to his longer works, "The Swamp in the Forest," and "Lieutenant Babayev," they plunge the reader into the mad chaos of the often abnormal emotions felt by the characters. These characters imagine the divine side of human nature; they consider it as having existed before in the essence of things, but the reality does not harmonize with their dream. The authentication of this discord torments Tzensky's heroes and their souls protest passionately, but in vain, against these outrages.

Sergyev-Tzensky's style, graphic and pure, often strange, has found imitators among the younger writers. Thus, Mouyzhel, who describes village life, is visibly influenced by his writings. According to him, the soul goes through life without understanding it, without being able to ascribe any meaning to it. And he is so sincere, that his works obtain the frankest sort of success.

* * * * *

While Mouyzhel studies peasant life, Simon Youshkevich, to the exclusion of all else, makes a study of the poor Russian Jews. Some of his stories have produced an overwhelming impression. They show us beings, heaped up, pell-mell in the ghettos of the cities of western and southern Russia, dirty and unwholesome ghettos, where consumption and all kinds of terrible sickness reign. These stories, often tragic, always sad, have given Youshkevich the name of "chanter of human suffering."

In his earlier works—the best of which are "The Jews," "Tavern-Keeper Heimann," "The Innocents," "The Prologue" and "The Assassin"—he devoted himself to portraying, not isolated persons, but the immense Russian Jewish proletariat, with its sad past, its bloody present, and its exalted faith in the future. Youshkevich has created this sphere; he considers the poor people of the cities not as a social class, but as a symbolic representation of an entire organization. If his work is at times infected with romanticism and some exaggeration the reader will gladly forget these imperfections when he recognizes the fact that they are necessary to enable this author to express the truth. What makes this writer unique, is that he cannot be confounded with any one else. He has never influenced any of his readers and, in turn, has never imitated any one. He made himself what he is.

His last literary productions—with the exception of his very touching drama, "Misere"—have been inferior to his former work. But the abundance of the materials furnished by Jewish life would still give this author opportunity to give us more of the magnificently colored pictures that he gave us in his initial productions.

Close to Youshkevich should be placed the two young writers, Sholom Ash and Izemann. Sholom Ash has principally depicted the Jewish world and its psychology. "The God of Vengeance" is a touching picture of the life of young Jewish girls who have been obliged to prostitute themselves for a living. "Sabbatai-Zevi,"[19] a philosophical poem, treats of the powerful personality of that Jewish prophet and of the surroundings in which he passed his life.

[19] A famous impostor of the 17th century: 1626-1676.

Izemann, who has written quite a few tales and stories, is a very uneven author. His best work is "The Thorn Bush," a drama of the life of the Russian-Jewish revolutionists. Manousse, the son of a poor tinsmith, has been arrested, and then hanged for having taken part in a terrorist uprising. His sister, Dara, engaged to the son of a wealthy manufacturer, has, in her turn, been killed at a barricade. She is carried back to her home, and there, revolver in hand, the mother receives the soldiers. She falls mortally wounded at the side of her fourteen year old son. Thus, the entire family perishes. The last act of this sombre drama makes a tremendous impression on the stage.

* * * * *

After having been a country doctor for several years, Eugene Chirikov abandoned his practice in order to devote himself to literature. His drama, "The Jews," has aroused great interest and has been played with great success both in Russia and abroad. It is one of the most significant works of this writer. The story concerns itself with the children of a poor Jewish watchmaker, who are infatuated with ideas of progress. Their infatuation is such, that the daughter becomes engaged to a Gentile. A delirious mob invades the houses of the Jews. The store of the poor watchmaker is not spared, and the fiancee of the Gentile is ravished and then murdered. The rapid action of the play makes it a dramatic "slice of life."

The other plays and stories of this author give us pictures both of the petty "bourgeois" and of the "intellectuals." Thus, "The Strangers" tells the story of a group of "intellectuals" who have strayed into a small market town in the provinces where all are hostile to them. Then there is "The Invalids," which gives the story of the life of an old man who, after having been exiled to Siberia for several years on account of "advanced" ideas, returns to Russia as confident as ever, ready to consecrate the rest of his life to the people. Finally, "At the Bottom of the Court," "The Mysteries of the Forest" and "Marya Ivanovna" are dramas from bourgeois life, while "The Sorceress" is a play, taken from a national epic.

Not less well known than Chirikov, is Ossip Dymov. He forsook the "Imperial Institute of Foresters" in order to devote himself to literature. He has written numerous stories, among which "Vlass" is the most captivating. It is the childhood of Vlass told by himself. An observing little person, the child notices everything and everybody around him. His father had killed himself before the child was old enough to talk, and his mother, a very intelligent and stern woman, alone had to care for four children. Vlass has an older brother, Yuri, a sister, Olya, and a younger brother, Vladimir, a kind and inoffensive creature. Life runs along smoothly in the little country town. The days pass, one like the other, and the most insignificant event takes on grave importance in this monotonous life. One night, Vlass's young teacher is arrested and sent to Siberia. A year later, a friend of the family, who has been in exile a long time, comes back secretly and passes several days at the house. Later on, it is "the beautiful, good aunt" who comes unexpectedly; but she soon departs, leaving a mass of confused and restless thoughts in the child's mind. Vlass ends his story with a most pathetic account. Far away from the little town, in one of the prisons of St. Petersburg, they are going to hang Yuri. The entire family has broken down since they have heard the news, and they sit up the night before the execution, trying, in thought, to alleviate the torment of their cherished one.

In his other stories, the author paints nature in an original and entirely personal manner. According to a Russian critic, the works of Dymov breathe forth "the fresh breeze and the quickening aroma of the forests."

Dymov has also written some very well-liked plays, of which "Niyu" is the most original. Niyu, a young woman, abandons her husband and child in order to follow a poet, whose beautiful language and touching poetry have won her admiration and brought her under his spell. She hopes that her lover will create a new world, a higher and nobler world than the every-day one, because he is a poet, that is to say, one of the elect. The abandoned husband and the uncared-for child desperately call out for their wife and mother. In vain! However, the days that she passes with the poet are filled with disenchantment, disillusion, and bitterness. Despairing, she writes a letter to her old parents who live in a distant town, and then commits suicide. And hardly is Niyu buried, when the poet, although sadly affected by the premature loss of his companion, again begins to charm and entrance by his beautiful words other women, whose lives he ruins.

"Niyu" has had a tremendous success, because it brings a really new formula into the theatrical world. Very little action, very few "situations;" no artificial procedure: life; dialogue imitated from reality; an atmosphere of despair and tedium in which three beings cruelly struggle; sincere evolution, very much pessimism, and happiness and love, constitute the traits that characterize this very human piece of writing.

* * * * *

Mention should also be made of Sayitzev, certain of whose stories are comparable to the aquarelles of a landscape painter. One of his best works is "Agrafena," a touching picture of the life of a peasant woman. During her lifetime, she was a domestic in the cities, and when finally, bent under years of labor, she comes back to her native village and her daughter, whom she has secretly brought up at great pains, it is only to find that she has committed suicide, having been abandoned by her lover.

Among others, should be mentioned Gussev-Orenburgsky, who has written some very interesting stories about the Russian clergy; Skitaletz, whose "Rural Tribunal" has had a great success, and has been translated into several languages; Seraphimovich and Teleshov, who, like Chirikov, depict the life of the "intellectuals," and Olizhey, the psychologist of revolutionary spheres, known particularly by his "The Day of Judgment," which tells of an officer, a member of a council of war, who is forced to condemn his future brother-in-law to death. This story leaves an indescribable impression of terror and horror.

Let us finally mention Count Alexis Tolstoy, the homonym of the great Russian thinker, to whom the critics predict a brilliant future. His first work appeared in 1909. He generally depicts landed proprietors. His recent stories, "The Asking in Marriage," and "Beyond the Volga," show signs of great strength and power of observation.

* * * * *

Among the women, there are three who show real talent. In fact, Mme. Hippius-Merezhkovskaya is regarded as one of the founders of Russian modernism. We are indebted to her for some rather daring verses and some very good stories. The most recent of these, "The Creature," is the curious history of a love-sick prostitute; "The Devil's Doll" is an episode in the life of the Russian "intellectuals." Endowed with a caustic spirit, she excels all others in literary criticism.

Then comes Mme. Verbitzkaya, who has declared herself a champion of women, who, she thinks, should throw off the often tyrannical yoke of their husbands. Her novels, "Vavochka," and "The Story of a Life," have given her just renown. In "The Spirit of the Time" she has tried, not without some success, to paint the immense picture of the revolution of 1905. Her recent novel, "The Keys of Happiness," has had an enormous success.

Finally, mention should be made of Mme. Shepkina-Koupernik, who has written some verses and charming stories, full of caressing tenderness and delicate psychology. Her stories, in which she shows us two old Italian masters, are very interesting. Thus, "Eternity in a Moment" is delicious. In a painter's studio, a young model by chance meets her old lover, who has also been reduced to posing in studios. Happy at heart, the woman rushes toward him, but he pushes her away: he is too miserable, he has fallen too low to dare to love her again. Repulsed by him, she stands as if petrified, with death in her soul, and her face changed by terrible despair. At this moment the master enters; he looks at the young woman and utters a cry of joy; finally he has found what he wants for his picture: human traits ravaged by suffering and despair!

Russia is also indebted to this author for impeccable translations of Rostand's "Princesse Lointaine" and "Chantecler."


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