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20th Century French Novel

What most distinguishes the twentieth century French-language novel from its literary predecessors is its resistance to convenient categorizations or mappings onto literary movements. Rather than movements, a series of currents emerge centering upon philosophical, theoretical, and aesthetic concepts (such as existentialism, absurdism, and the nouveau roman), and ranging from the anticolonial novel to litterature de la banlieue (literature of the ghetto). This diversity of the novel form raises the question: “Is the novel still the novel?” Indeed, the twentieth-century novel witnessed more manifestos than movements, more diversity than unity in schools of thought, and more heterogeneity than homogeneity of forms and themes.

The twentieth century was a time of crisis for the novel. In the first half of the century the symbolists, then the surrealists, attacked the novel and thereby prompted novelistic innovation. In the latter half, the new novelists renewed the attack, and revivified the genre. Toward the end of the century, competition from popular media, such as cinema, challenged the novel yet again, forcing writers to refurnish its raison d’etre. These identity crises resulted in self-interrogations and redefinitions, making the novel the most self-conscious of twentieth- century genres.

The French novel was also subject to interrogation and redefinition in its relationship to what came to be called the “Francophone” novel. The term bears some explanation: Francophone in the strict sense is an adjective referring to individuals or groups speaking French. There, however, is where the simplicity ends, for the term is often, and problematically, applied exclusively to countries outside the boundaries of France itself (primarily former French colonial possessions) or to individuals perceived to have their origins there.

From the first years of the twentieth century to the first years of the twenty-first, the French-language novel became a veritable garden of forking paths. Some paths of the novel can nevertheless be traced by drawing up a map of convergences and divergences that, though complicated, can prove a useful guide into (if not out of) the labyrinth.

Ruin and Rebirth of the Novel

French Literature EssayLong regarded as a lower form of art for its untidy treatment of the banal, as opposed to genres such as poetry that grappled with loftier, abstract matters, the novel at the outset of the twentieth century may be described as the bete noire of the arts: a form made up of, and in, ruins. The fin-de-siecle skepticism toward the novel form, which Nathalie Sarraute (1900–99), in her L’Ere du soupcon (1956), identifies as inaugurating an “age of suspicion,” holds that the novel’s principal features—the conventional mechanisms of plotting, the rational unfolding of cause and effect, and contrived character traits, all contained in a loose, unstructured form—give an inauthentic, reductive, and prosaic picture of the world. Moreover, in the wake of nineteenth-century realism and naturalism, writers found themselves facing a dilemma: if the traditional novel’s objective was, as the famous mirror analogy in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830, Scarlet and Black) claimed, to serve as “a mirror carried along a high road” (chap. 40) in the pursuit of verisimilitude, then not only was it incompatible with the concerns of the modern world, it also did not merit the distinction of high art. Early twentieth-century writers thus chose to shatter the mirror and experiment with its shards.

Both Marcel Proust and Andre Gide exerted the greatest influence over the French novel in the twentieth century, seeking to redeem its faults and restore its place among the arts. Gide, who was until his death a politically committed (engage) writer, noted in his journal that for the novel to survive it would need to shed its ancestral skin and aspire to higher aesthetic principles. It could no longer be a mirror carried along a high road; rather, it would need to reflect a set of internal truths expressed by the structural economy of a poem, wherein each of the work’s parts proves the truth of the others.

Given his own skepticism as to the genre’s viability, however, Gide refused to apply the term “novel” to several works that were subsequently considered part of his novelistic oeuvre. He called both L’Immoraliste (1902, The Immoralist) and La Porte etroite (1909, Strait is the Gate) recits (a brief text with a simple narrative line) and Les Caves du Vatican (1914, The Vatican Cellars) a sotie (a dramatic genre dating from the medieval period referring to a short, satirical play). It was only with Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925, The Counterfeiters) that Gide felt he had succeeded in producing what he envisaged for the genre, as the text breaks nearly every rule of the traditional novel. Les Fauxmonnayeurs tells a multiplicity of stories from as many perspectives. Gide had previously coined the term mise en abyme to refer to patterns of narrative mirroring within the novel, and he applied this technique to Les Faux-monnayeurs: Edouard, one of the novel’s principal characters, is in the process of writing a novel of the same title, whose protagonist is also a novelist. In Gide’s hands, the novel attains a self-reflexivity and indeterminacy that show a world reliant on the contingent, subjective, and fragmentary as opposed to any notion of the objective and comprehensive. Gide’s truth is encapsulated in the mise-en-abyme structure: the novel can only reflect its own counterfeit image(s).

While Gide was busily working toward a new form for the novel, Proust was investigating the potential of the form to reconcile truth with subjectivity. Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27, Remembrance of Things Past), changed the landscape of the novel by using its form as a forum for philosophical reflections on the nature of memory, time, and art and their relation to truth. Against positivism, rational thought, and causality, Proust reveals the contingent and associative nature of human experience with respect to memory. Told primarily from the first-person perspective of Marcel (whose name has prompted autobiographical readings of the novel), A la recherche du temps perdu relates the narrator’s experiences through time. This experience is nonlinear; it is a stream of moments and events that flow together and where past and present converge. It is also contingent on associations sparked by what Proust called “involuntary memory.” One of the novel’s most famous episodes occurs early in the first volume, when, upon tasting a petite madeleine, a small cake, Marcel’s childhood memories rise up into the present. Proust’s masterpiece has been understood as the translation of memory into artistic creation. For Proust, artistic creation is a spiritual journey toward a higher truth; in fact, just as the narrator redeems a wasted life through art (he writes the novel the reader has been reading), he describes the form the novel takes as a cathedral. Proust’s greatest contribution was to elevate the novel beyond storytelling, making it tell of the translation into art of the highly subjective, internal world through the associative power of memory.

Although Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) theories of the unconscious did not reach the French-speaking public until the 1920s, Proust’s investigations into memory bear striking similarities to his notions of free association and the workings of the unconscious on the conscious mind. Freud’s work on the unconscious was, however, directly co-opted by Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism. Breton was perhaps the most vocal opponent of the genre, fiercely attacking the novel in the first Manifeste du surrealisme (1924, The Surrealist Manifesto) as the basest form of artistic expression, one that neglected what he saw as art’s impetus: to investigate the imagination through direct access to the unconscious. While Breton discouraged his fellow surrealists from playing at novel-making, he himself dabbled in the genre with Nadja (1928). The novel recounts Breton’s encounters with a woman he meets in a Parisian street. She appears to him as the spirit of surrealism because her experience of the world centers on an unstable connection to reality. Rather than employing conventional plotting devices, Breton’s portrait of Nadja takes the form of a clinical case study complemented by photographs (of people, places, and Nadja’s symbolic drawings) that replace narrative description; favoring chance over the logical constraints of plot, Breton suggests an alternative conception of the real.

Raymond Queneau, who frequented the surrealists until 1929, recognized that the novel could explore the more abstract aspects of the human condition because it had no direct commerce with the real. Since the novel was admittedly an arbitrary construct, it could be constructed with the rigor of verse. In his early work, he sought (successfully) to make the novel into a kind of poem. His first novel, Le Chiendent (1933, The Bark-Tree), is one such roman-poeme: it is structured with the mathematical precision of the sonnet: the text has a distinct rhythm, and its characters and scenes rhyme internally.

Queneau was also interested in revolutionizing the language of the novel, providing it with a vocabulary similar to everyday speech. He was disappointed when Louis-Ferdinand Celine published Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932, Journey to the End of the Night) before his Chiendent, as Celine’s novel caused a stir with its irreverent use of the French language. Celine’s style, however, differs from Queneau’s. Celine described his own style as resembling lacework: he employs the ellipsis frequently, with his prose appearing to hang together by patterned threads. Early readers saw this as an anti-literary jumble of words. Celine’s point, however, involved disorienting the reader, and he succeeded both in terms of style and content. Early critics were at a loss to determine whether his work constituted a war novel, a colonial novel, a bildungsroman, or a journal. As WWII approached, the novel’s rebirth saw the genre transformed into a self-conscious entity, one capable of mirroring subjectivities and fragmentary perspectives as (un)real as the incomprehensible and relativistic world surrounding them.

The New Novel

From the 1950s on the nouveaux romanciers (new novelists) returned to the attack on the “traditional” novel by participating in Gide and Proust’s tradition of wrenching the novel free from its assumed relationship with reality. The new novel is less a movement than a collection of writers experimenting; Roland Barthes, one of its greatest proponents, preferred the term “sociological phenomenon” to describe it. Other critics have identified it in terms ranging from ecole de l’objet (school of objects) to the ecole du regard (school of the gaze). While novelists such as Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Georges Perec, and Jean Echenoz have been said to participate in this “phenomenon,” Alain Robbe-Grillet was undoubtedly its driving force. His collection of essays, Pour un nouveau roman (1963, Toward a New Novel), provides an overview of the issues at stake in shaking off nineteenth-century realism and promoting a new kind of realism, one that acknowledges the vast gap in the relationship between people and things. In Robbe- Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957, Jealousy), for example, the narrative questions traditional narrative forms through the presence of an absent, third-person narrator, a jealous husband observing objects through a jalousie, a slatted blind.

In the new novel, conventional narrative structures and temporality also require reconsideration, since they rely on subjective experience. Both Butor and Duras question the ability of chronological, linear structures to give form or meaning to human experience. In Butor’s L’emploi du temps (1956, Passing Time), a young man named Jacques Revel writes a diary detailing his daily routine. Full of arbitrary gaps, the diary illustrates Revel’s subjective experience of time. Duras’s most celebrated works, such as Moderato Cantabile (1958) and the autofictional novel L’Amant (1984, The Lover), attempt to represent unspeakable images and memories though an austere and visually oriented language.

Other traits that characterize the new novel include the dissolution of central characters (who may lack names, faces, or even important roles), nonlinearity, and a concern with the creative act (Jean Ricardou calls the genre “no longer the writing of an adventure but the adventure of writing”), preoccupation with perception and description, and formal experimentation. The obsession with description has led some to read the genre as preoccupied with consumer society. In fact, the first novel by Perec, Les Choses: Une histoire des annees soixante (1965, Things: A Story of the Sixties), received instant acclaim for its brilliant description of the gap between people and things, contradicting marketing strategies that promise freedom and happiness in contemporary consumer society.

Remembrance of Forms Lost and Found

Despite the critical success of the new novel, the traditional novel continued to find new forms of expression throughout the century. Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented and enriched the historical novel with her Memoires d’Hadrien (1951, Memoirs of Hadrian), the fruit of years of research on the reconstruction of ancient Rome under the emperor Hadrian. While Yourcenar’s historical novel expressed a sense of redemption and hope through art, Celine’s later novels unsettleed the genre. D’un chateau l’autre (1957, Castle to Castle), the first in his final trilogy, is perhaps one of the most autobiographical of his recognizably autobiographical works. Chateau recounts Celine’s flight through Germany in the wake of accusations of collaboration, during the liberation of France at the end of WWII. The text’s fragmented narrative suggests that there is a fundamental disorder in history. The chaotic fallout of the war is also imminently evident in the breakdown of language and meaning in the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Meurt (1951, Malone Dies), and L’Innommable (1953, The Unnamable) by Samuel Beckett.

Set in the aftermath of the war, Rue des boutiques obscures (1978,Missing Person) by Patrick Modiano rethinks the genre of the detective novel, as its amnesiac protagonist travels in search of his past. While Le Procesverbal (1963, The Interrogation) garnered acclaim, Desert (1980, Desert) was the breakthrough novel for Jean-Marie Gustave Le Cl[1]ezio. Like many of the novels that were to follow, and as the peripatetic author himself was wont to do, Desert sought the elsewhere. It follows the impoverished young girl Lalla from a lavishly depicted North Africa to France. While at first glance a travel narrative, it is also a meditation on literary form, asking what it might mean to be, like those whom Lalla has left behind, a people without an epic.

The Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (“workshop of potential literature,” OULIPO) is, despite its series of manifestos, neither a movement nor a school but a writers’ workshop. Founded by Queneau and the mathematician Francois Le Lionnais (1901–84) in 1960, it explores the literary potential of formal devices from the past (what the group terms the analytic aspect of its research) and seeks the creation of new forms (the synthetic aspect). Oulipian texts are constructed based on a series of constraints upon form and content, such as Queneau’s Les Fleurs bleues (1965, The Blue Flowers), Jacques Roubaud’s Hortense detective novel trilogy, and Anne Garreta’s Sphinx (1986), which exploits French grammar to obscure characters’ genders.

Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (1978, Life: A User’s Manual) has been hailed an Oulipian masterpiece, and it is arguably the most influential French novel from the second half of the twentieth century. The text, which Perec filed under the genre of romans (novels), contains a multiplicity of novels and characters and is perhaps the most rigorously structured novel in the history of the genre. Artistic representation being one of the novel’s many thematic concerns, Perec attempts to short-circuit narrative time by writing a kind of painting of a Parisian apartment building. While the artists who inhabit the building fail to accomplish their artistic goals, Perec’s meticulous descriptions of rooms and objects lead to narrative descriptions about the people who lived in and possessed them. A tour de force of intertextuality and self-reflexivity, this novel also suggests that the arbitrary systems by which human beings order their lives reflect a preoccupation with filling empty spaces.

In 1977 Michel Tournier proclaimed his intent to make changes to the novel, not in its form but in its content. Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique (1967, Friday), his first novel, had used a rewriting of the story of Robinson Crusoe to show the folly of the Western world’s mania for order and hierarchy. In the text, the shipwrecked protagonist seeks—disastrously—to organize and chronicle both his tiny island and the life of Friday, another lost soul whom he has claimed as his servant. Having once planned to teach philosophy, Tournier’s subversions of the novel form’s content owe much to the latter discipline as well. Throughout his oeuvre, Tournier’s novels are guided by his desire to imbue the novel with another literary discourse: myth.

Popular and Postmodern Novels

Many of the novelists who began their careers in the latter part of the twentieth century bear the influence of the new novel and of OULIPO. Both Echenoz and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, for example, have often been called inheritors of the new novel, but their major contribution to the novel may be a redefined postmodern consciousness, one which treats the subjects and objects under its gaze with profound irony. Additionally, these writers are aware of the novel’s precarious position in relation to an increasingly visually oriented public. In his first novel, Le meridien de Greenwich (1979, The Greenwich Meridian), Echenoz begins and ends with an attempt to re-create in words the panning of a movie camera. Many of Echenoz’s works, such as Greenwich and L’equipee malaise (1986, Double Jeopardy), play with the tenets of the conventional detective novel. They foreground absurd and inept plots that ultimately collapse, suggesting that the characters’ need to assert control over their experiences only produces more chaos.

Toussaint’s characters also grapple with insoluble, albeit smaller, dilemmas of their own creation. Toussaint’s novels have earned a reputation for their minimalism and the immobility of modern life that they exhibit. The narrator of his L’appareil photo (1989, Camera), for example, opens the novel by informing the reader that in his life “ordinarily nothing happened.” In La Television (1997, Television), a university professor vows, and fails, to abstain from watching television while on sabbatical to write a monograph on Titian.

Michel Houllebecq is known for being a provocateur as much as for producing popular fiction. His works treat contemporary and often inflammatory themes, and they are marked by graphic sexuality. His best-known work, Les particules elementaires (1998, Atomised) undertakes a flirtation with the genre of science fiction as it assails 1960s sexual culture and its aftermath. Plateforme (1999, Platform) launched a suite of novels critiquing capitalism and tourist culture; more controversially, it earned the author accusations of Islamophobia (to add to earlier allegations of misogyny and sexism). With a style known for being readable, and at times overly so, Houllebecq left behind the lofty intellectualism of the nouveau roman and reached out to a larger public.

Exploring Identities and Ideologies

The novelists associated with existentialism, notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, believed the novel, and literature in general, capable of effecting social change and encouraged a litterature engagee (committed literature). Rather than reflecting an image for a passive readership, they expected society to hold a mirror to itself and to change what it saw. Sartre’s protagonist in La Nausee (1938, Nausea), Antoine Roquetin, is a man trapped in his own consciousness and bound by angst. After failing to produce a biography, Roquetin thinks of writing a book that would make its readers feel as ashamed of their inadequate lives as he does. Unlike Proust’s narrator, Roquetin is a would-be writer who fails to redeem a wasted life through art.

De Beauvoir is best known for her Le Deuxieme sexe (1949, The Second Sex), a brilliant philosophical treatise on the lived experience of womanhood, and her novels also merit serious attention. Le sang des autres (1945, The Blood of Others) in particular incarnates the existentialist concern with the possibility of changing the world. Set during the Nazi occupation, the novel highlights the imperative and the danger of taking action. The novel’s characters face a dilemma: if they take up arms against the Nazis, the latter’s reprisals will kill innocents; if they do not fight with the Resistance, they abet the Nazi occupation. Far more than a philosophical quandary in novel form, the text breathes life into the problem of acting upon our world.

While Algerian-born French novelist Albert Camus has often been identified as an existentialist writer, he saw himself as an absurdist, one who views the world as inherently meaningless, amoral, and unjust. The indiscriminate nature of the brutal murder of a young Arab man by the protagonist Meursault of L’Etranger (1942, The Outsider) is a reflection of the absurd. The first part of the novel shows Meursault reacting, or failing to react, to his mother’s death with the same peculiar quietness and passivity that he displays during his trial for the murder in the second part. Camus depicts Meursault, a French colonist in Algeria, as a man lacking in moral awareness. Awaiting the execution of his sentence, he is comforted by the thought that he is like the world: gently indifferent.

Edouard Glissant, another novelist from a former French colony profoundly concerned with identity, has made the prophetic declaration that “the entire world is being creolized [and] ‘archipelagoized’” (in Chandra): i.e., the world is coming to resemble the Caribbean decentered with all nations and identities increasingly in contact with all others, in a process of auspicious creolisation (cultural blending). The French nation-state has, according to Glissant, gravely mishandled this contemporary reality. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the plight of disenfranchised youth in France, often of immigrant backgrounds, has come under the spotlight. Kiffe-kiffe demain (2004, Just Like Tomorrow) is a depiction of life as a North African immigrant in a poor suburb by Faiza Guene. New novelistic genres have appeared since the litterature Beur (literature of the Maghreb immigration) of the 1980s—cf. Le the au harem d’Archi Ahmed (1983, Tea in the Harem) by Mehdi Charef—such as the popular litterature de la banlieue, of which Guene is an example.

For Glissant, the mirror in which the West could once gaze upon itself in transparency has become opaque with the silt deposited by the non-Western other. This silt, he continues, is fertile yet often unexplored. Glissant’s birthplace of Martinique epitomizes the ever-increasing influence of artists from French-speaking regions outside of France. Often writing in the long shadow of the poet and statesman Aime Cesaire (1913–2008), one of the founders of the international Negritude movement, novelists of the Francophone Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique emphasized survival and resistance—Simone Schwarz- Bart, Pluie et vent sur Telumee Miracle (1979, The Bridge of Beyond)—or experimented with Creolite and later Creolisation—Maryse Conde, Traversee la mangrove (1989, Crossing the Mangrove)—movements that proclaimed a mixed and multifarious Caribbean reality. Long before them, the Haitian novelists Jean Price-Mars—Ainsi parla l’oncle (1928, So Spoke the Uncle)—and Jacques Roumain—Gouverneurs de la rosee (1944, Masters of the Dew)—worked in the indigenisme genre, seeking to capture a Haitian peasant reality.

It was another Caribbean author who was to anticipate the anticolonial novel: Rene Maran, stationed as a colonial administrator in what is now the Central African Republic, made the insults and injuries of colonialism sufficiently clear in his Batouala: un roman negre (1921, Batouala) for the book to be banned and the author to be relieved of his job. Indeed, one way among many of grouping together the profusion of Francophone African texts from the 1950s on is through the rubric of critique, though not always realist. Despite the diversity of the Francophone African countries, a canonical consensus of sorts has emerged. Early Sub-Saharan African novels, such as the work of Camara Laye, have become classics in their own right. L’Aventure ambiguie (1961, Ambiguous Adventure), by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, is a metaphysical meditation on a young Senegalese boy’s violent encounter with the encroaching West, while Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956, The Poor Christ of Bomba), by the Cameroonian Mongo Beti, is a tragicomic novel presented as the diary of an acolyte who follows French priests in their decidedly unholy Christianizing enterprise. The epistolary, anti-patriarchal novel Une Si Longue Lettre (1979, So Long a Letter) remains quite popular and is the most widely taught novel by a Francophone African woman writer, Mariama Ba. Authors of the post-independence period such as Sony Labou-Tansi, whose works, including La vie et demie (1979, Life and a Half), have been problematically associated with magical realism, often took great risks with their critiques of their oppressive governments.

African immigration to Europe spawned a series of texts illustrating the punishing world of the immigrant, largely unknown to the French public. Le Baobab fou (1982, The Abandoned Baobab) by Ken Bugul is a shocking tale of sex, drugs, and immigration, while Bessora concentrated on absurdly comical immigration rules in her 53cm (1999). Driss Chraibi’s Les boucs (1955, Butts) was the first novel to bring to light the hardships endured by North African immigrants to France. Another Moroccan, Tahar Ben-Jelloun, also chose to write on the margins of society with the transgendered protagonist of L’enfant de sable (1985, The Sand Child) and its sequel La nuit sacr[1]ee (1987, The Sacred Night). Authors such as the Algerian Kateb Yacine undertook radical experimentations with fragmented narrative forms. Assia Djebar, an Algerian-born feminist, is recognized for her structurally innovative novels, such as L’amour, la fantasia (1985, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade), which deconstruct and subsequently rewrite colonial constructions of history.

Deterritorializing the “French” “Novel”

For better or for worse, Francophone authors have often been obliged to explain their choice of French as a language of expression. Many have deterritorialized (in the Deleuzean sense) French: In Quebec, Rejean Ducharme reformulated French grammar in L’Avalee des avalees (1966, The Swallower Swallowed). In the cases of numerous Caribbean and Mauritian authors, the language has come to be merged with Creoles. Alternatively, the novel Soleils des independances (1968, The Suns of Independence) by Ahmadou Kourouma sought to speak Malinke (a West African language) in French. It can be said that many Francophone authors are themselves deterritorialized, as attributing national identities to authors who have lived transnational lives proves problematic. Examples, such as Dany Laferriere, born in Haiti and living between Montreal and Miami, abound.

French-language novelists are a diverse group both within and without the Hexagon, or the country of France, and only a small sample have been surveyed here. Moreover, the French nation-state may no longer serve as a center of gravity for the French-language novel. This latest crisis was epitomized in 2007 by the manifesto signed by forty-four authors calling for the demise of Francophone literature, proclaiming instead a “World Literature in French.” What new forms will the French-language novel (broadly speaking) take after more than a century of crises? All paths, it would seem, follow the argument made by Milan Kundera, a French citizen since 1981, in his L’Art du roman (1986, The Art of the Novel): the spirit of the novel lies in its “wisdom of uncertainty.”

Bibliography:

  1. Bowie, M. (2000), Proust among the Stars.
  2. Chanda, Tirthankar (2000), “The Cultural ‘Creolization’ of the World; Interview with Edouard Glissant,” Label France 38.
  3. Corcoran, P. (2007), Cambridge Introduction to Francophone Literature.
  4. Forsdick, C. and D. Murphy, eds. (2003), Francophone Postcolonial Studies.
  5. Girard, R. (1965), Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Y. Freccero.
  6. Guerlac, S. (1997), Literary Polemics.
  7. Hollier, D., ed. (1989), New History of French Literature.
  8. Jefferson, A. (1980), Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction.
  9. Lucey, M. (2006), Never Say I.
  10. Mathews, J.H. (1966), Surrealism and the Novel.
  11. Motte, W., ed. (1986), OULIPO.
  12. Motte, W., ed. (2008), Fiction Now.
  13. Offord, M., L. Ibnlfassi, N. Hitchcott, et al., eds. (2001), Francophone Literatures.
  14. Unwin, T., ed. (1997), Cambridge Companion to the French Novel.

See also:

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