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The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

This is such a strange book. When I had finished reading I asked myself what on earth was it about? I wrote two pages of A4 notes to help me answer that question and to prepare this blog post. You had better read the novel yourself if you can’t make out anything from what I say. 

The Towers of Trebizond is my contribution to the #1956Club. I have read two other novels by Rose Macaulay recently (much earlier ones, see below) and have several copies of her other works which I inherited from my mother. The edition I read was a 1959 reprint, from the Reprint Society. You can find out more about the #1956Club at two blogs: KaggysBookishRamblings and Simon at StuckinaBook.

The Towers of Trebizond

The novel is set in the decade following the end of the Second World War. It follows a small group of missionaries who go to Turkey to convert the population. There is Aunt Dot, probably in her fifties, who owns a camel and is an inveterate traveller. She wishes to emancipate the women of Turkey. Then there is Father Chauntry-Pigg who is rather high church and has an interest in certain styles of churches. He keep relics in his pockets. With them goes Laurie, Dot’s niece and the narrator, who has not much more to do that offer to be a companion and to write and illustrate the travel aspects of Dot’s projected book. She also helps care for the camel.

This foursome are joined by others from time to time. They arrive in Istanbul and pick up Halide, a doctor, converted to Anglicanism while studying in England and in love with a Turkish man, who wants a Muslim wife. There is David and Charles and a complicated case of plagiarism, connected with another book about travelling in Turkey. And Laurie’s married lover Vere meets her on the Mediterranean coast.

From Istanbul the missionary party set off for the eastern sea board of the Black Sea, and for Trebizond (modern day Trabzon) a city that once was at the heart of the Empire of Trebizond. Rose Macaulay writes beautiful passages about their travels. They move on to Armenia, close to the Russian border, and Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear. Laurie suspects they have entered Russia, behind the Iron Curtain at this time. With no news of them she travels on by herself with the camel. She meets her lover and after some time in Palestine and Syria crosses into Israel. From here she travels home, her journey having taken her to many biblical and archaeological sites. I greatly enjoyed the lively descriptions of her travels and of the history of the places she visited.

The pace changes when she get home as she (and we) wait for Aunt Dot and her companion to reappear. There is a sub plot about a book David is writing using the works of Charles, about his travel in Turkey. Charles was eaten by a shark. There are other ongoing dramas as well, including about spying (Dot and her companion spend time with Philby and McLean in Moscow) and lots and lots about the influence of the church on places, buildings, morality etc etc. And there is an episode about training an ape to play chess, go to church, drive etc etc.

It’s all pretty bonkers, especially when there is a fatality in the penultimate chapter. This seems like a huge plot event to raise at this point in the novel. But we have been given a tour of many different things, and Rose Macaulay appears to be saying – embrace everything, reject nothing.

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. The Towers of Trebizond is perhaps her best known novel. It was her last. She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained which is a shame as she has things to say to us today. 

In this novel she writes about the need to emancipate women, which was her lifelong concern. She was also interested in Anglicanism and the role of the church, as well as in adultery. She was no advocate of any particular system, and her comments on Soviet Russia would have horrified staunch supporters of the Cold War at the time. She was also critical of the creation of Israel for the suffering caused to the Palestinians. 

The narrator adopts a rather flat, even naïve style to report on the fantastic adventures. A wide-eyed traveller is a good basis for travel writing. She offers little judgement on the characters, or on the events, although there is discussion of the moral basis for their behaviours. This serves to underline the difficulties of truth and goodness in Europe in 1956. There is much discussion of spies, for example.

And then there’s the camel which provides possibly the second or third most famous opening line in fiction:

“Take my camel, dear,” said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (7)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956. I used an edition from the Reprint Society, published in 1959. 256pp Both NYRB and Flamingo have published paperback versions.

Related posts

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, published in 1920 (on Bookword).

Non-Combatants and Other: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, published in 1916 (also on Bookword).

HeavenAli’s review in December 2018, who enjoyed The Towers of Trebizond while finding it ‘all wonderfully bonkers’. 

And StuckinaBook relishes its style, the humour and the ramble. Simon is one the hosts of the #1956Club.

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Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

What pleasure! Another Twentieth Century female novelist to get stuck into. Dusty Answer was Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel and her most successful in that it became a best-seller. Some were scandalised by it, for in 1927 young women were not supposed to write about such sensuality, and hardly to experience it. Some thought this novel would pervert the young and campaigned for it to be withdrawn from sale.

It’s hard to understand these fears and criticisms today. We know that women were not supposed to be concerned with sex. But this is not a sexy book. There are certainly overtones of homosexuality, male and female, as well as young people behaving in a headstrong manner. There is very little overt sex. What is very heady is that the text and the story are suffused with the protagonist’s emotional responses.

Cover of first US edition

Dusty Answer

Judith is the only child of an eminent and well-off father and a distanced mother. They live in a large and beautiful house on the banks of the river (?Thames). The next door house is occupied occasionally by the Fyfe family, a large group of cousins, 4 boys and one girl. Judith longs to be included in their circle and her life seems to switch on and off with their arrivals and departures. The first part concerns the time they spent together as children and is most romantically described.

The First World War intervenes and the most attractive of the boys, Charlie, is killed. Just before he left for the Front he had married Mariella and she has a son, Peter, although she still acts like a child herself. Judith continues to live in the shadow of the Fyfes, as she anticipates her time at Girton College.

The first evening at college Judith is crippled with social embarrassment and finds herself quite unprepared to live with other young women. Her isolated and privileged upbringing is evident in her reaction at her first evening meal. She finds her fellow undergraduates to be boorish and ugly. The crucial difference is that they are not self-absorbed as she is.

Trips. Labs. Lectures. Dons. Vacs. Chaperons. The voices gabbled on. The forks clattered. The roof echoed.
‘Ugly and noisy,’ muttered Judith. ‘Ugly and noisy and crude and smelly …’ You could go on for ever.
There were eyes staring from everywhere, necks craning to look at her …
‘But I can abstract myself. I can ignore their rudeness …’
[…] She studied the row of faces opposite her, and then more rows, and more, of faces. Nearly all of them plain, nearly all with a touch of beauty: here and there well-cut heads, broad white placid brows, young necks; white teeth set in pleasant smiles; innocent intelligent lovely eyes. Accepting, revealing faces they were with no reserves in them, looking at each other, at things – not inward at themselves. But just a herd, when all was said: immature, untidy, all dull and all alike, commonplace female creatures in the mass. How boring it was! (110)

But in the very next paragraph she finds Jennifer and for two years they are inseparable. It is a very intense relationship. Then Jenifer abandons Judith for another woman and leaves the college. Judith finishes her degree, aware that she has become more and more in love with Roddy Fyfe.

After gaining a good degree Judith drifts around and becomes more involved with the Fyfes cousins. Each of them finds reasons to be close to her. She reveals her love to Roddy and is again rejected. She agrees to marry Martin, on the rebound, then tells him she won’t. Mariella confides in her about her marriage and son. Judith goes abroad with her mother. Julian meets up with them and offers to knock the edges off her as his mistress. She has made up her mind that she will do this when Martin dies in a sailing accident.

Everything is resolved in a flurry of grief and letters, including a promise to meet from Jennifer, who does not appear.

Judith returns home to an empty house a little wiser and more experienced and able to shake off the Fyfes’ influence. 

She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best. (303)

The epigraph suggests that Judith will deceive herself if she feels that she understands.

Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life? (George Meredith)

It’s a complex set of relationships with a large number of characters, which I found quite difficult. I never managed to differentiate the Fyfe boys until the final section.

Rosamond Lehmann

The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990) and she drew on her childhood for this novel. She was brought up in Buckinghamshire, her father a Liberal MP and her family high achievers in the Arts. She was first educated at home and then won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in English Literature and in Languages. 

The success of this first novel enabled her to escape from her first marriage and she went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. She had two children in her second marriage, but when her daughter died of polio in 1958 her life took a new direction. She became interested in psychic matters.

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1927 republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1996, which I used for this post. 303pp

Related links

My Bookword review of Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann appears immediately before this post.

Heavenali wrote an excellent review of Dusty Answer last month on her blog. You can read it here.

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The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is a highly respected writer. Her novels are much enjoyed by readers whose opinions I admire. Her reputation rests largely on Rebecca, a novel she published in 1938. Through the brooding good looks of Laurence Olivier and the happy fortune of Hitchcock’s film (1940) this writer has remained very popular. I think her reputation today is based on that film, and especially upon the creepy character of Mrs Danvers. The novel has a slightly different plot denouement from the film. I find it difficult to enjoy a book that depends on the reader’s sympathy for a murderer. I wrote about this here.

So what to choose for the Daphne du Maurier reading week, organised by HeavenAli for 11-17th May? I had a choice of four novels which had been on my mother’s shelves. I asked for help from book-tweeters and back came the recommendation for The House on the Strand. 

My choice for the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week 2020

I experienced nostalgia as I read it, a nostalgia based on the smell of the pages, and the appearance of the browning pages. This was one of those regular arrivals from the World Book Club. Sight, feel and smell all brought back my teens, reading from among these books in the school holidays. Katherine by Anya Seton (1954) was another, as was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961). The House on the Strand fits right in, published in 1969.

The House on the Strand

Richard Young, our hero and narrator, is staying in a house in Cornwall near Par. He is on his own, the house having been lent by his great friend the biophysicist Professor Magnus Lane. But his American wife and two stepsons will join him in a few days.

Dick has agreed to undergo an experiment for Magnus, which pitches him back in time to the early 1300s amongst the families of the district, and particularly beside one man, Roger, who is steward to one of the rich women. Dick returns several times to this world, coming to see it as more interesting. Gradually he becomes obsessed with it and would rather be in that world than with his wife in the present day. 

The reader follows Dick in his first experience of taking the drug. He finds himself in a vivid medieval world, full of politics, passion and underhand doings centred on the local gentry. The setting of the novel is vividly realised, the place names link old and current names, the tides and other topographical details are exploited. For example, a man is killed because in his consciousness he is on an empty hillside, but physically he is on a railway track still in the current day.

At each visit to the past Dick finds himself a little further on with the story he has been witnessing, especially as it concerns the beautiful and adulterous Isolde. There is a suspicious death, a brutal murder, community events and eventually a visit by the Black Death. 

As for Dick, he has severely endangered his own marriage, and put his health in jeopardy too. The doctor who treats him suggests that there is a Freudian explanation for what he has experienced, but aspects of it are not accounted for by this theory. 

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907 Daphne du Maurier lived a long and productive life, writing many novels as well as short stories and plays. Most of her life was spent in Cornwall, where she died in 1989 at Fowey. From 1965 she lived in Kilmarth, the house on the strand. 

She is usually characterised as a romantic novelist and there are often dark shadows of the paranormal in her plots. Although there is a fair amount of pseudo-science to explain the drug and its time-travelling effects, enough for one reviewer to claim it falls into the science fiction genre, the drug’s effects are more mystical especially as the traveller is not physically present in the medieval world, and experiences bad reactions when he touches a person from the past, including being catapulted back into the present. She is also famed for her ambiguous endings, the calculated irresolution. In this novel it is unclear what the lasting physical effects of Dick’s misadventures will be.

What are we to make of this book? She seems to be implying that drugs that mess with your brain are damaging. This was the time when LSD was becoming widely known and used. Or was she suggesting that science was getting out of hand? There is an eccentric professor to create the drug complete with a basement laboratory where monkeys’ heads are kept in jars along with phials labelled A, B and C.

Any ideas of class are completely ignored. Apart from Mrs Collins the benevolent housekeeper (an antidote to Mrs Danvers) all the characters are firmly in the well-to-do bracket. Dick’s wife is a widowed American who brings two step-sons and ambitious plans for Dick to emigrate to a job in the USA. And in the medieval period all the main players are people of substance, engaged in local and national battles for power.

It was hard to have sympathy for any character. Dick is weak and manipulatable; Vita is too energetic and has beastly friends; Magnus creates the concoction that initiates the whole mess and then disappears; and the bloodletting among the medieval characters, the jockeying for positions, the unpleasant relationships, none of these characters are sympathetic. Roger, a steward, who is the main character that Dick always follows has the redeeming feature of loyalty to his employer. But even he switches employer.

So …?

I am not much impressed by this book. It seems dated to me in its class assumptions, its focus and the narrative was hard to follow with all the place names (the all begin with Tre-) and the family names. Unless another blogger in this reading week manages to convince me, I think I shall leave the rest of Daphne Du Maurier’s oeuvre on the shelves.

What did you think of it?

Heavenali loved it and she has a much more positive review on her site than I have posted here. Happy Birthday!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) I read my mother’s hardback edition from World Book Club. 285pp. Virago Modern Classics published an edition in 2003

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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career, written by 16-year-old Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin and published in 1901, is the start of a new series on the blog. This precocious writer grew up in New South Wales and knew something of the hardship of pioneer life. The title is ironic, the career of her main character, Sybylla, like her own, was not brilliant at the end of the novel.

Welcome to the Bookword 2020 Decades Project. This year I return to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am using the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I will choose one from each decade every month. My choices will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

My Brilliant Career

Sybylla’s story forms the narrative thread of this novel, told in the first person. Her circumstances change dramatically several times before she is 18, starting with the idyll of her early life in the bushlands, the family’s decline due to her father’s dissolution. The poverty that the family endure on a selection, trying to run a dairy farm, is grinding and Sybylla escapes when her grandmother invites her to live in her house, Caddigat. Here she meets Henry Beecham, who is as good a man as any and they are attracted to each other. But Sybylla refuses to commit to marrying him, preferring to retain her freedom. 

Her mother soon requires her to work as a governess to a family who have lent her father some money. She leaves the comfort of her grandmother’s house and takes up her position. But she finds the conditions too awful and has a breakdown. She returns home and Henry follows her, vowing he still wants her. She tells him that she does not want the servitude of marriage. She wants a brilliant career!

The main driver for this story is how this uppity, not beautiful young girl will evade or succumb to marriage. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all pressure her to make the best marriage she can. Her grandmother makes her views very clear, as here when she responds to a young man suggestion that Sybylla has the talent for a career on the stage.

‘Career! That’s all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’ (64)

Soon after Sybylla explains to her grandmother why she has rejected an offer of marriage.

‘… I would not marry him or any one like him although he were the King of England. The idea of marriage  even with the best man in the world seems to me a lowering thing,’ I raged; ‘but with hum it would be pollution – the lowest degradation that could be heaped upon me! I will never come down to marry any one –‘ here I fell victim to a flood of excited tears. (72)

It seems surprising to me that a sixteen year old writer dared to put these thoughts into the mouth of another young woman in 1901. This sentiment was hardly expressed until much later in the century I believe. At times Sybylla’s life is very hard, but she is never tempted to escape the drudgery of a woman’s lot in Australia in the 1890s by making a favourable marriage.

Another theme is the grinding difficulty of surviving, as a family and as an individual. One’s standing in the community matters and is guided by known truths (eg that women will marry or that a clean home is a godly home). Assistance when necessary comes from community and family although no one has much to spare. Another notable feature of the book is the political implication of the struggle to make a living in very difficult circumstances. She has a sympathetic reflection on those who pass through Caddagat as tramps, for example.

Sybylla appears to be a headstrong and opinionated girl, who  believes she knows better than those who are more experienced and educated than she is. To some extent she voices every girl’s experience of chafing the norms of girlhood, but Sybylla lives by her principles and will not marry. Her brilliant career was nowhere in sight at the conclusion of the book. Miles Franklin never missed an opportunity to send up her protagonist’s ambitions and failure to achieve them.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

Google Doddle 2014

Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales in 1879. She lived a long life, publishing many novels before she died in 1954. My Brilliant Career was assumed to be her autobiography and she refused to allow it to be republished following its first reception. She went to America and Britain before returning to Australia in 1932. She never married. 

This is not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, the author said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. I am tempted to describe the writing and the main character as ‘spirited’, but I am conscious that only girls get described in this way. 

In her later life Miles Franklin encouraged other writers and especially Australian writers. She left a bequest that initiated the Miles Franklin Award in 1957. This award is given annually to a work of fiction of high literary merit which promotes Australian life. 

There is a second award in her name: the Stella Award for Australian women writers. 

Two blogs with reviews of My Brilliant Career:

Heavenali reviewed it on her blog in November 2013, noting its extravagant expression.

BookerTalk also reviewed it, in January 2019. She enjoyed it but regrets a tendency for Miles Franklin to get on her soap box in this novel.

The Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction includes an extract from the opening pages of the book where she describes the excitement of being a girl in the bush with her father.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, first published in 1901 and published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. 232pp

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To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

I came late to Elizabeth Bowen’s writing. But since I first acquired a copy of The Last September I have been reading and reviewing her books at a pleasurable and slow pace. This is how, six years ago, I introduced my approach to her writing:

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile. 

I have already reviewed six of the ten novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword. (For links see the end of this post). She is central to my desire to avoid pursuing new books and to read and reread more of books published for some time ago. I wrote about this recently in a post called Books and the pursuit of the new.

I found an old Penguin copy of To the North among my mother’s books. I took it on my travels and admired her all over again. 

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

The novel’s story takes place over a short period of time. It is set mostly in London and the time is between the wars.

The novel follows Cecelia, a young widow who is considering remarrying. She is a lively and attractive woman, is economically independent and she enjoys lunches and dinners and meeting up with her aunt by marriage, Lady Waters. At the start of the novel Cecelia is travelling north from Italy, returning to St Johns Wood, near Abbey Road in London.

She shares her house with her sister-in-law Emmeline. She is younger than Cecelia, and also independent. She has a car and she is a partner in a travel bureau that she and a friend have established. She is very beautiful and stylish in her own way.

On the train from Italy Cecelia meet Markie, a self-centred barrister, who is predatory and always wants what seems distant. After a mild flirtation with Cecelia he becomes obsessed with Emmeline. She normally holds herself aloof from love affairs, but Markie is an expert. They form a liaison although they agree not to marry but then he treats her very badly. Meanwhile Julian is waiting in the wings, patiently and with understanding for Cecelia.

There are some excellent supporting characters. The Blighs are friends of Lady Waters’s and provide a contrast to the intensity of Cecelia and Emmeline’s relationships. They are indulging in being unhappily married. Then there is Pauline, the adolescent orphan that Julian has responsibility for. Her interaction provides another ingenuous perspective. Elizabeth Bowen writes child characters very well. The typists, who work for the travel bureau, provide some comic interludes, as Enmeline and her partner are unable to deal with the hapless Miss Tripp and her replacement.

Elizabeth Bowen’s skill is in the minute description of the psychological shifts of each character as they interact with the others. We are presented with a number of different relationships: several marriages, a few romances, employer-employee, child- adult, and friendships between men and women and between women. One couple will self-destruct, the other will find comfort in each other.

Emmeline drives north at the end of the novel after a failed reconciliation with Markie. Their relationship is doomed.

This was the 4th of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels. She wrote 10. I have 3 more to read.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1932. I used the Penguin edition, published in 1945. 286pp

Elizabeth Bowen

Heaven Ali wrote an excellent review in 2015 on her blog of To the NorthHere’s the link.

Links to reviews of novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword

The Last September

The Hotel

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris

Friends and Relations

Eva Trout

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Milkman by Anna Burns

It was the menace that meant I could not read this book at night. And also the density of the prose, the close discussion of the implications of every action by every person. And so it took me a great while to read.

I had noted that it was the Man Booker Prize Winner for 2018. My reading group chose it for January. And so I began, determined to read to the end. I’m so pleased I did. What an experience!

Milkman by Anna Burns

This novel is partly an account of coming of age, or at least coming to her senses in a dangerous situation. It is narrated by a girl of 18 who lives in the 1970s in a city that seems to be Belfast, but is not named in the novel (any more than our narrator is). She appears to live in the Ardoyne area and was therefore born into a Catholic family. The streets around her home are dominated by renouncers with their own rules and kangaroo courts. The city is patrolled by armed forces from the state over the water. 

Our narrator attempts to live her life outside the complications of this place and its influences. But she comes to see that no action, including avoidance, is beyond the community’s interpretation and judgement. Her habit of walking along reading books from the 19thcentury or earlier has led her to beyond the pale.

But she has also attracted the attention of milkman, a major renouncer. She tries to avoid his attentions. But it is clear that he already knows everything about her, including her relationship with Maybe-Boyfriend, her evening classes, her family (including those who have brought shame on the community). He wants her and his attentions bring threats and the sense of being stalked.

She has also rejected the attentions of Somebody McSomebody who cannot believe that he has been rejected. And she has attracted the attention of tablet girl, a nihilist on a deadly mission.

All three represent mortal risks to the narrator, made worse by the community – including her mother – believing she is already involved with milkman. 

No one is unaffected by the situation, everybody has their own version of what is happening and what should happen. 

The way in which this works out is the stuff of the dense and tight plotting. 

The style

Two aspects of the writing are worth exploring. The absence of give names, and the use of relationships in their place, as well as the occasional riff on the significance of names in the area is notable from the opening sentence. 

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a rat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. (1)

By not naming the city Anna Burns wants us to look beyond Belfast, and indeed the travails of our narrator are those of any young woman growing up in a place where conformity, prejudice and patriarchy are the dominant forces. More or less everywhere then.

And by identifying people through their relationships with her (the wee sisters, third brother-in-law, longest friend from primary school and so on) the lines of connection are emphasised. Family and community are the dominant connections.

The other aspect is the dense discussion, explanation, exploration of everything that happens involving running, car parts, severed cats’ heads, feminist meetings, dogs, medical treatment and so on. Being clear about the possible meanings could be the difference between rough justice and being let alone. But it is also the way young questioning people make sense of their world. And our narrator could be any young woman trying to find her way in the world.

Characters

In such a tight community where everyone is known to everyone being able to differentiate the characters is important. Some are deliberately made to share a name (the milkman and the real milkman, for example). Some are exquisitely described, especially the more sympathetic men, such as the real milkman or third brother-in-law. But the most flagrant character is Ma. At first we are disappointed in her. When the narrator explains her concerns about milkman’s attentions, Ma does not believe her version and accuses her daughter of being immoral and unwise. But later Ma comes to see her own disappointments in a new way and even to find some happiness.

Her most endearing habit is her near malapropisms. 

‘Back then,’ she’d say, meaning the olden days, meaning her days, their days, ‘even then,’ she said, ‘I never understood your father. When all was said and done, daughter, what had he  got to be psychological about?’ (84)

I laughed out loud at that and then wept at the description of Da’s depression.

Ma is broadly representative of the women of the community, who both enforce and at times challenge the rule of the renouncers, intervening to prevent some punishments. They act decisively to punish a man who transgresses their rules about their toilets in the local drinking place.

Humour

So while I was reading slowly, because of the menace in the story, I was also appreciating the humour. Some is in the turns of phrases, necessary because of the use of repetition and lists. The best must be 

… charmingly packaged, gift-wrapped potatoes … (334)

The precocious wee sisters also provide much amusement, as does the inventiveness of the language and of plot details. Here’s a wonderful colourful moment near the end, when the wee sisters join the other girls from the area and beyond in dressing up and dancing as an international ballroom dancer in the streets:

This explained the colour – for there had been an explosion of colour – plus fabric, accessories, make-up, feathers, plumes, tiaras, beads, sparkles, tassels, lace, ribbons, ruffles, layered petticoats, lipsticks, eyeshadows, even fur – I had glimpsed fringed fur – high heels too, which belonged to the little girls’ big sisters and which didn’t fit which was why periodically the little girls fell over sustaining injuries. (315)

Recommended

The themes of this book are important: tribalism, patriarchy, living in fear and explored through some very careful plotting. 

All those present at the discussion at the January reading group agreed it was an excellent book. And we know what the panel of judges for the Man Booker Prize thought. Highly recommended.

Do you have an opinion? For another perspective you can find Heavenali’s recent response here

Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber in 2018. 348pp

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.

#ReadingMuriel2018

For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

 

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

As a child born in 1948 my vocabulary included the word duringthewar. Adult conversation I overheard often included it. It was years before I realised what duringthewar referred to. By that time the adults had become largely silent about their war experiences, something my generation often remark upon. The silence was strange because their war experiences, like Frances Faviell’s, had often been intense and they influenced the post-war period.

And who knew? There is a form of writing called blitz-lit according to the foreword to A Chelsea Concerto. In my experience this is a unique book and worthy of its republication by Furrowed Middlebrow. First published in 1959 it is a vivid and authentic account of one young woman who was living in Chelsea during the Blitz.

301-chelsea-concerto

Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell could not keep silent about her experiences, as she noted in the Prologue:

And the ghosts will not recede or leave me in peace. Pushing, jostling, thrusting away their grey forms they blossom before my eyes from the muted cobwebby hues of memory to those of warm pulsating life. They will not recede; insistent and determined they force me to take up my pen and go back with them to the summer of 1939. (2)

So who was this writer who could not let her memories rest? Frances Faviell was her pen name and she had already written three novels: A House on the Rhine (1955), Thalia (1957) and The Fledgeling (1958) and a memoir. But she was also a painter, as the language of the quotation might suggest. She was known as Olivia Fabri and had studied with Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art, married a Hungarian painter and travelled with him discovering a talent for languages. Before the war and without her first husband she had settled in Chelsea to be among artists. Her facility for languages was put to use in her work supporting the ever-complaining Belgian refugees who arrived in Chelsea in the first months of the war.

I have sadly been unable to find any paintings by Olivia Fabri or Frances Faviell on the internet. But the lurid cover of the book is from a painting by her.

The Blitz in Chelsea

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As the events recede the collective memory of the Blitz is of a relentless bombing on London from the outbreak of the war in 1939 to its conclusion on VE Day in June 1945. But the truth is more particular. Other cities suffered badly from aerial bombardment, not least Plymouth (where Frances Faviell’s mother lived) and Bristol (home of her sister). I was born in Coventry, another city ravaged by bombs, and I later taught history in one of its secondary schools. Pre-war Coventry was somewhat hard to find.

Between November 1940 and the Spring of 1941, following the ‘Phoney War’, there were 71 major air raids on London, in which 40,000 civilians were killed. Raids took place most nights. Being on the River Thames, Chelsea was badly hit. It must have been an intense time of heightened emotions and sharp experiences. Raids reduced in the summer of 1941, but began again with the V1s (Doodlebugs) and V2s in the last months of the war.

A Chelsea Concerto covers just under the first two years of the war, from its outbreak in September 1939 to the raid that demolished Frances Faviell’s home in Cheyne Walk on 11th May 1941.

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

A Chelsea Concerto

Her account begins with the outbreak of war and proceeds to record how the impact of war grew steadily, culminating in two terrible nights in April 1941. Frances had signed up as a Red Cross nurse and trained to work in a First Aid Post (FAP). She also undertook volunteer work on the switchboard for civil defence communications and looking after the families of Belgian refugees who found themselves in London. Like all Londoners, there was also fire watching duty, to deal with the thousands of incendiary bombs.

In her area she had many friends. The children were evacuated, and returned as the dangers appeared exaggerated. They disappeared again when the bombs arrived. The young men joined the forces and disappeared, older men and women took on war work. In Chelsea there were also the working class families, who ran shops businesses. The old couple who slept with their horse is the stuff of myths, but really happened.

Frances Faviell kept open house until she was bombed out, and she supported her many friends. They became homeless, suffered breakdowns, needed support with their children, or came to to pet the dog or to exchange news.

She tells stories of real suffering and of heroism, including her own.

‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down – better without it.’ I took off the dress. ‘Fine,’ he said shortly when I stood in the ‘black-outs’, as we called the closed black panties which most of us wore with uniform. ‘It’ll have to be head first. We’ll hold your thighs. Go down first with this torch and see if it’s possible to give a morphia injection or not – I doubt it. Ready?’ ‘Yes,’ I said faintly for I was terrified. ‘Better hold the torch in your mouth, and keep your arms tight by your sides,’ he said. ‘Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ I nodded – it was as if I was having a nightmare from which I would soon waken. ‘Ready?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs, swung me up and lowered me down the hole. ‘Keep your body absolutely rigid,’ said the doctor. ‘Don’t be afraid – we’ll hold you safe,’ said the large woman. ‘I ought to be doing this – but I’m too big.’

The sound coming from the hole was unnerving me – it was like an animal in a trap. I had once heard a long screaming like rabbits in traps from children with meningitis in India, but this was worse – almost inhuman in its agony. (130)

Fear came late to Frances Faviell as the end of 1940 approached.

Up to that time I had not minded the Blitz at all. I had just married, and we were very happy, although the occasions when we were both together were increasingly rare. Richard was frequently away on a tour for the Ministry, and I was often on night duty, but the bombs only seemed a macabre background to our personal life, and the fact that either of us could be a victim of the Blitz seemed a remote thought. … (166)

Fear seems like a rational response. Here’s her description of the raid in April that brought down her house, killing three of its occupants.

We had never experienced such a night – bombs seemed to rain down – and in the intervals of their explosions which tonight were the loudest and longest we could remember we could hear the guns in the planes as the fighters chased them. The sky was alight with flares, searchlights, and exploding shells – it was a magnificent but appalling sight. The fires which we could see were terrifying – the largest in the direction of Victoria, was enormous and appeared to be increasing. Behind us, much nearer, there was a terrible blaze in the direction of Burton Court. (212)

Moments later the house was hit and Frances, Richard and the Dachshund barely escaped.

She retells her experiences of the time in everyday detail, with much humour and sharp observations about the way in which the Blitz affected Londoners. And she is mindful of the damage being inflicted in turn upon German cities by the RAF and the Allies.

Such experiences have not been confined to history. Sadly, such an account reveals something of what it must be to live in Aleppo at this time. War is ever with us.

Thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press for the review copy.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016 235 pp

Related Posts and Books

Scott, who writes the Furrowed Middlebrow blog explored A Chelsea Concerto in some detail in 2013.

Heavenali reviewed this book enthusiastically in October on her blog.

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Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (2011) published by Penguin. Virginia Nicholson wrote the Foreword to the new edition of A Chelsea Concerto.

I also reviewed a novel from this new imprint in October. A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

 

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The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This book took me much longer to read than I anticipated, and I enjoyed it less than I had hoped. This is a pattern. I first tried The Waves when I was a pretentious 15-year old. I gave up. Later I came to it when I read all Virginia Woolf’s novels in the order in which they were written. I liked it, but not much of it remained with me. I was impressed by its structure, the lyrical evocation of time passing over the waves, and by the six voices of the novel. It seemed a bold experiment, but I was not sure what Virginia Woolf had achieved with it.

Emboldened by participating in #Woolfalong, hosted by Heavenali on her blog, I decided to give The Waves another go. This is my sixth contribution to #Woolfalong. You can find the others listed at the end of this post.

298-waves-coverA Summary

The structure of this book is conveyed through the six voices of the six characters. Their lives unfold through episodic sections. Between these parts are very lyrical descriptions of the waves and the surrounding countryside at successive times of day, beginning at dawn ending 200 pages later with the simple phrase

The waves broke on the shore.

THE END

In To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf had written a similar section called Time Passes, which referred to the material condition of the Ramsay’s house, the animals who lived in it, the people who were its caretakers, and the people for whom it had once been so important.

The other sections of The Waves are reported in the voices of the six speaking characters, each one indicated by ‘Bernard said,’ or ‘Jinny said,’ and so on. The characters are of an age, three boys and three girls, and there is another who never speaks, Percival, to whom they all looked up. He was something of a hero to them, a situation cemented by his early death as a result of a fall from a horse.

We follow these six people from childhood in the garden to Bernard’s death. In the final section his is the only voice and he reflects on the lives we have been reading about.

Reading The Waves

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I had several long train journeys and many quiet hours in rural France when I could expect to devote myself to the book, but it took me much longer than I had anticipated. I found that the narrative was too slight to carry me forward. I needed to read more carefully, more slowly than usual. It was like attending a modern dance performance and not being very sure where on stage to give attention.

Some of the writing is dense, unusual, experimental. Here is Bernard noticing that they have moved into another stage in life, in middle age.

‘And time,’ said Bernard, ‘lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. Last week, as I stood shaving, the drop fell. I, standing with my razor in my hand, became suddenly aware of the merely habitual nature of my action (this is the drop forming) and congratulated my hands, ironically, for keeping at it. Shave, shave, shave, I said. Go on shaving. The drop fell. All through the day’s work, at intervals, my mind went to an empty place, saying, “What is lost? What is over?” And “Over and done with,” I muttered, “over and done with”, solacing myself with words. People noticed the vacuity of my face and the aimlessness of my conversation. The last words of my sentence trailed away. And as I buttoned on my coat to go home I said more dramatically, “I have lost my youth”. (141)

This passage introduces the image of the drop indicating time has passed, adding to the idea of the steady dripping, sand running out. Virginia Woolf here combines the everyday and concrete (shaving, buttoning on a coat), clichés (such as ‘over and done with’) with this more cerebral or at least philosophical consciousness of how time changes us.

There are some motifs to notice in the text: the drop, the flower, the moths and, of course, the waves. Each wave, each event is followed by another event, similar but different, bringing change, making its mark, both creating (patterns on the sand, piles of detritus) and destroying what it makes. Some events become like talismans; an example is the water poured over his skin that awakens the very young Bernard to the sense that there is something outside of him.

What was Virginia Woolf trying to do?

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf was always experimental, and since Mrs Dalloway she had been revealing the world from inside the heads of her characters, rather than show the reaction of the characters to events. The term for this is stream of consciousness, and in an earlier post about To the Lighthouse I said,

But the phrase [stream of consciousness] is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading.

And here she is doing it with six characters over their lifetimes.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition Kate Flint contrasts the approach of Virginia Woolf with novelists such as Arnold Bennett and HG Wells who, in conventional plots, emphasised the importance of the material world.

Here she goes even further than previously in the direction of demonstrating that identity, rather than depending on the concrete circumstances of a person’s life, is primarily constructed from within, through an individual’s deployment of language. (x)

I would go further and say that Virginia Woolf rejected essentialist notions of identity. It is common to suggest that novelists uncover the true identity of their main characters. In The Waves Virginia Woolf shows us that our sense of our self changes, and in relation to others. We know our identity, have a sense of ourselves, only as far as we share, contrast and mutate with others through words.

What I loved

To the extent that this makes a great novel I am not sure. I think I would have to reread it many times to understand its many layers, themes, motifs and ideas. But I can start with picking out some of the successes that I noted on this, my third attempt.

First those lyrical sections, between the episodes in the life of her six characters, are marvels of writing: imagery, rhythm, colour and timbre. Descriptive passages are often static, a moment for the reader and characters to draw breath. But in The Waves the interludes bring change, are all about change.

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel. The girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight path over the waves. The quivering mackerel sparkling was darkened; they massed themselves; their green hollows deepened and darkened and might be traversed by shoals of wandering fish. As they splashed and drew back they left a black rim of twigs and cork on the shore and straws and sticks of wood, as if some light shallop (see note) had foundered and burst its sides and the sailor had swum to land and bounded up the cliff and left his frail cargo to be washed ashore. (54)

Portugal 2010

Portugal 2010

Then there is a section that brought a nostalgic pang to my reading, which follows the passage just quoted. The six characters are now young adults, Bernard and Neville up at Oxford or Cambridge, the others beginning to feel their adultness. In this section the possibilities of life are fully anticipated by the young people.

‘The complexity of things becomes more close,’ said Bernard, ‘here at college, where the stir and pressure of life are so extreme, where the excitement of mere living becomes daily more urgent. Every hour something new is unburied in the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No I am that.’ (56)

It’s a long time since I felt acutely ‘the stir and pressure of life’ as extreme. This novel put me back in touch with that feeling.

And so …

And so I feel pleased that I have again engaged successfully with this novel and enjoyed some segments. But much of it seems very obscure, dense and I am not surprised that, as far as I am aware, no other writer has attempted to follow Virginia Woolf to show how people’s identities are formed from inside their heads.

(note) A shallop, by the way, is a boat used for rowing in shallow waters, especially a two-masted, gaff-rigged vessel of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is connected to the more familiar sloop.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931). Originally published by Hogarth Press, read in Penguin Modern Classics edition (1992) 241pp.

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

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