The Only Color Picture of Tolstoy, Taken by Photography Pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1908)

The photo above depicts Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known in the English-speaking world as Leo Tolstoy. It dates from 1908, when he had nearly all his work behind him: the major novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, of course, but also the acclaimed late book The Death of Ivan Ilyich. His own death, in fact, lay not much more than two years before him. (See footage of the final days of his life here.) This didn’t offer much of a window of opportunity to the chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who had recently developed a photography process that could capture the great man of letters in “true color” — and who understood that such a portrait would score a promotional coup for his innovation.

“After many years of work, I have now achieved excellent results in producing accurate colors,” Prokudin-Gorsky wrote to Tolstoy early that same year. “My colored projections are known in both Europe and in Russia. Now that my method of photography requires no more than 1 to 3 seconds, I will allow myself to ask your permission to visit for one or two days (keeping in mind the state of your health and weather) in order to take several color photographs of you and your spouse.” After receiving that permission, Prokudin-Gorsky spent two days at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s family estate, where he took color pictures of not just the man himself but his working quarters and the surrounding grounds.

“A few months later, in its August 1908 issue, The Proceedings of the Russian Technical Society ran the following announcement describing ‘the first Russian color photoportrait,’ a color photograph of L. N. Tolstoy,” according to Tolstoy Studies Journal. The resulting fame drew Prokudin-Gorsky an invitation to show his work to Tsar Nicholas II, who subsequently furnished him with the resources to spend ten years photographically documenting Russia in color. “To this day, nobody knows exactly what camera Prokudin-Gorsky used,” writes Kai Bernau at Words that Work, “but it was likely a large wooden camera with a special holder for a sliding glass negative plate, taking three sequential monochrome photographs, each through a different colored filter.” This appears to be a technological descendant of the process developed in the early eighteen-sixties by Scottish physicist-poet James Clerk Maxwell, creator of the first color photograph in history.

To view that photograph, Maxwell “projected the three slides using three different projectors, each affixed with the same color filter that had been used to produce the slide.” Prokudin-Gorsky, too, had to project his photos, though he did later make color prints; “he also published it, in significant numbers, as a collectible postcard,” says Tolstoy Studies Journal, adding that the version seen here is a scan of one such postcard. How accurately a lithographed reproduction like the one above of Tolstoy represents the ‘real’ colors of Prokudin-Gorsky’s original projected image is debatable”; the basic technological difference between “subtractive” lithography and “additive’ projection means that we can’t be seeing quite the same picture of Tolstoy that the Tsar did — but then, it’s a good a likeness of him as we’re ever going to get.

Related content:

The History of Russia in 70,000 Photos: New Photo Archive Presents Russian History from 1860 to 1999

Behold the Very First Color Photograph (1861): Taken by Scottish Physicist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

Russian History & Literature Come to Life in Wonderfully Colorized Portraits: See Photos of Tolstoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

The Very Last Days of Leo Tolstoy Captured on Video

Tsarist Russia Comes to Life in Vivid Color Photographs Taken Circa 1905-1915

Colorized Photos Bring Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller & Mark Twain Back to Life

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Patti Smith Reads Sylvia Plath’s Poem, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

Court Green, the rural Devon property Sylvia Plath called home for sixteen months toward the end of her life is a popular pilgrimage for Plathophiles, seeking to worship at the wellspring of some of her best known poems – The Bee Meeting, Daddy, Lady Lazarus, and many other works posthumously published in 1965’s Ariel.

(Her ex-husband Ted Hughes wrote his collection, Crow, there as well, not long after Plath died by suicide. Something tells us his widow, Carol, a staunch defender of her husband’s legacy, doesn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat when she sees starry eyed devotee’s of her husband’s first wife tromping around the perimeter of the property where she still lives…)

Plath scholar Dorka Tamás made the trip to St. Peter’s, the North Tawton church abutting Court Green. Plath took pleasure in describing its grounds in letters to friends and family, and immoratlized its massive yew in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”:

I looked around the Victorian gravestones, slowly passing the souls of the dead. The beautiful green trees could not contrast more with the Neo-gothic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was searching for the window of Court Green, Plath’s office window, from which she could have an expansive view of the yew…North Tawton has been an ambiguous place for both Plath and Plathians. In the year she spent in the isolated village, she produced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she experienced extreme isolation after Hughes left her. Nevertheless, the country life provided plenty of opportunities for Plath to explore her creative, aesthetic, and domestic independence, such as horse riding in the field of Devon, experimenting with beekeeping, painting her children’s nursery elbow chair, and making apple pie from the apples of her garden. The poetry and fiction Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and winter 1962 are embedded in the natural environment in Devon and community, places, and non-human life of North Tawton. 

Poet David Trinidad, an avid collector of Plath-related memorabilia, whose souvenirs include a vial of dust from the studio she occupied during a residency at Yaddo and a facsimile of a blue patterned Liberty of London scarf she gave her mother during a 1962 visit to Court Green, prizes his cuttings from St. Peter’s yew:

Plath wrote The Moon and the Yew Tree on October 22, 1961, less than two months after moving to Court Green. Everything in the poem is true: her property was separated from an adjacent church by a row of headstones; on Sunday eight bells would toll; an ancient yew tree grew in the church graveyard. …She doesn’t mention the yew tree specifically in any of her letters; she saved that for the poem.

Godmother of Punk Patti Smith, whose souvenirs run more toward Polaroids, wrote of visiting Plath’s grave in her memoir, M Train, and identifies the poet as someone who makes her want to write.

Her performance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” above, is more straightforward than Plathian, allowing the darkness of the work–which The Marginalian’s Maria Popova calls “one of (Plath’s) finest poems and one of the most poignant portraits of depression in the history of literature”–to speak for itself.

As Popova notes, the poem was written during a difficult period, in an attempt to fulfill a writing exercise suggested by Hughes, “to simply describe what she saw in the Gothic churchyard outside her window.”

Who would dare fault Plath for obeying the impulse to editorialize a bit?

The New Yorker had accepted but not yet published “The Moon and the Yew Tree” when Plath took her own life on February 11, 1963. It was published posthumously in a two-page spread along with five other poems six months later. You can read it online here.

via The Marginalian

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Playlist of 45 Shakespeare Film Trailers, from 1935 – 2021

The Internet Movie Database credits Shakespeare as the writer on 1787 films, 42 of which have yet to be released.

The Shakespeare Network has compiled a chronological playlist of trailers for 45 of them.

First up is 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Olivia de Havilland, Jimmy Cagney, Dick Powell, and, in the role of Puck, a 15-year-old Mickey Rooney, hailed by the New York Times as “one of the major delights” of the film, and Variety as “so intent on being cute that he becomes almost annoying.”

Tragedies dominate, with no fewer than six Hamlets, Shakespeare’s most filmed work, and “one of the most fascinating and most thankless tasks in show business” according to novelist and frequent film critic James Agee:

There can never be a definitive production of a play about which no two people in the world can agree. There can never be a thoroughly satisfying production of a play about which so many people feel so personally and so passionately. Very likely there will never be a production good enough to provoke less argument than praise.

Lawrence Olivier, Nicol Williamson, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant – take your pick:

MacBeth, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest – a comedy – are other crowd-pleasing workhorses, chewy assignments for actors and directors alike.

Those with a taste for deeper cuts will appreciate the inclusion of Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011), Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and Titus, Julie Taymor’s 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare’s most shocking bloodbath.

Moviegoing connoisseurs of the Bard may feel moved to stump for films that didn’t make the playlist. If you can find a trailer for it, go for it!  Lobby the Shakespeare Network on its behalf, or make your case in the comments.

We’ll throw our weight behind Michael Almereyda’s Cymbeline, featuring Ed Harris roaring down the porch steps of a dilapidated Brooklyn Victorian on a motorcycle, the bizarre Romeo.Juliet pairing A-list British vocal talent with an all-feline line-up of Capulets and Montagues, and Shakespeare Behind Bars, a 2005 documentary following twenty incarcerated men who spent nine months delving into The Tempest prior to a production for guards, fellow inmates, and invited guests.

Enjoy the complete playlist of Shakespeare film trailers below. They move from 1935 to 2021.

Related Content 

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Take a Virtual Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Stand-Up Comedy Routine Discovered in a Medieval Manuscript: Monty Python Before Monty Python (1480)

A funny thing happened on the way to the 15th century…

Dr. James Wade, a specialist in early English literature at the University of Cambridge, was doing research at the National Library of Scotland when he noticed something extraordinary about the first of the nine miscellaneous booklets comprising the Heege Manuscript.

Most surviving medieval manuscripts are the stuff of high art. The first part of the Heege Manuscript is funny.

The usual tales of romance and heroism, allusions to ancient Rome, lofty poetry and dramatic interludes… even the dashing adventures of Robin Hood are conspicuously absent.

Instead it’s awash with the staples of contemporary stand up comedy – topical observations, humorous oversharing, roasting eminent public figures, razzing the audience, flattering the audience by busting on the denizens of nearby communities, shaggy dog tales, absurdities and non-sequiturs.

Repeated references to passing the cup conjure an open mic type scenario.

The manuscript was created by cleric Richard Heege and entered into the collection of his employers, the wealthy Sherbrooke family.

Other scholars have concentrated on the manuscript’s physical construction, mostly refraining from comment on the nature of its contents.

Dr. Wade suspects that the first booklet is the result of Heege having paid close attention to an anonymous traveling minstrel’s performance, perhaps going so far as to consult the performer’s own notes.

Heege quipped that he was the author owing to the fact that he “was at that feast and did not have a drink” – meaning he was the only one sober enough to retain the minstrel’s jokes and inventive plotlines.

Dr. Wade describes how the comic portion of the Heege Manuscript is broken down into three parts, the first of which is sure to gratify fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

…it’s a narrative account of a bunch of peasants who try to hunt a hare, and it all ends disastrously, where they beat each other up and the wives have to come with wheelbarrows and hold them home. 

That hare turns out to be one fierce bad rabbit, so much so that the tale’s proletarian hero, the prosaically named Jack Wade, worries she could rip out his throat.

Dr. Wade learned that Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, was aware of The Hunting of the Hare, viewing it as a sturdy spoof of high minded romance, “studiously filled with grotesque, absurd, and extravagant characters.”

The killer bunny yarn is followed by a mock sermon  – If thou have a great black bowl in thy hand and it be full of good ale and thou leave anything therein, thou puttest thy soul into greater pain –  and a nonsense poem about a feast where everyone gets hammered and chaos ensues.

Crowd-pleasing material in 1480.

With a few 21st-century tweaks, an enterprising young comedian might wring laughs from it yet.

(Paging Tyler Gunther, of Greedy Peasant fame…)

As to the true author of these routines, Dr. Wade speculates that he may have been a “professional traveling minstrel or a local amateur performer.” Possibly even both:

A ‘professional’ minstrel might have a day job and go gigging at night, and so be, in a sense, semi-professional, just as a ‘travelling’ minstrel may well be also ‘local’, working a beat of nearby villages and generally known in the area. On balance, the texts in this booklet suggest a minstrel of this variety: someone whose material includes several local place-names, but also whose material is made to travel, with the lack of determinacy designed to comically engage audiences regardless of specific locale.

Learn more about the Heege Manuscript in  Dr. Wade’s article, Entertainments from a Medieval Minstrel’s Repertoire Book in The Review of English Studies.

Leaf through a digital facsimile of the Heege Manuscript here.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Three Punctuation Rules of Cormac McCarthy (RIP), and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Note: Today novelist Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, The Road and No Country for Old Men) passed away at the age of 89. Below, we’re revisiting a favorite post from our archive that focuses on punctuation, a distinctive element of McCarthy’s writing.

Cormac McCarthy has been—as one 1965 reviewer of his first novel, The Orchard Tree, dubbed him—a “disciple of William Faulkner.” He makes admirable use of Faulknerian traits in his prose, and I’d always assumed he inherited his punctuation style from Faulkner as well. But in his very rare 2008 televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy cites two other antecedents: James Joyce and forgotten novelist MacKinlay Kantor, whose Andersonville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Joyce’s influence dominates, and in discussion of punctuation, McCarthy stresses that his minimalist approach works in the interest of maximum clarity. Speaking of Joyce, he says,

James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.

So what “weird little marks” does McCarthy allow, or not, and why? Below is a brief summary of his stated rules for punctuation:

1. Quotation Marks:

McCarthy doesn’t use ’em. In his Oprah interview, he says MacKinlay Kantor was the first writer he read who left them out. McCarthy stresses that this way of writing dialogue requires particular deliberation. Speaking of writers who have imitated him, he says, “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.” Otherwise, confusion reigns.

2. Colons and semicolons:

Careful McCarthy reader Oprah says she “saw a colon once” in McCarthy’s prose, but she never encountered a semicolon. McCarthy confirms: “No semicolons.”

Of the colon, he says: “You can use a colon, if you’re getting ready to give a list of something that follows from what you just said. Like, these are the reasons.” This is a specific occasion that does not present itself often. The colon, one might say, genuflects to a very specific logical development, enumeration. McCarthy deems most other punctuation uses needless.

3. All other punctuation:

Aside from his restrictive rationing of the colon, McCarthy declares his stylistic convictions with simplicity: “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” It’s a discipline he learned first in a college English class, where he worked to simplify 18th century essays for a textbook the professor was editing. Early modern English is notoriously cluttered with confounding punctuation, which did not become standardized until comparatively recently.

McCarthy, enamored of the prose style of the Neoclassical English writers but annoyed by their over-reliance on semicolons, remembers paring down an essay “by Swift or something” and hearing his professor say, “this is very good, this is exactly what’s needed.” Encouraged, he continued to simplify, working, he says to Oprah, “to make it easier, not to make it harder” to decipher his prose. For those who find McCarthy sometimes maddeningly opaque, this statement of intent may not help clarify things much. But lovers of his work may find renewed appreciation for his streamlined syntax.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold the Microscopically Tiny Handwriting of Novelist Robert Walser, Which Took Four Decades to Decipher

Robert Walser’s last novel, Der Räuber or The Robber, came out in 1972. Walser himself had died fifteen years earlier, having spent nearly three solid decades in a sanatorium. He’d been a fairly successful figure in the Berlin literary scene of the early twentieth century, but during his long  institutionalization in his homeland of Switzerland — from which he refused to return to normal life, despite his outward appearance of mental health — he claimed to have put letters behind him. As J. M. Coetzee writes in the New York Review of Books, “Walser’s so-called madness, his lonely death, and the posthumously discovered cache of his secret writings were the pillars on which a legend of Walser as a scandalously neglected genius was erected.”

This cache consisted of “some five hundred sheets of paper covered in a microscopic pencil script so difficult to read that his executor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is simply handwriting with so many idiosyncratic abbreviations that, even for editors familiar with it, unambiguous decipherment is not always possible.”

He devised this extreme shorthand as a kind of cure for writer’s block: “In a 1927 letter to a Swiss editor, Walser claimed that his writing was overcome with ‘a swoon, a cramp, a stupor’ that was both ‘physical and mental’ and brought on by the use of a pen,” writes the New Yorker‘s Deirdre Foley Mendelssohn. “Adopting his strange ‘pencil method’ enabled him to ‘play,’ to ‘scribble, fiddle about.'”

“Like an artist with a stick of charcoal between his fingers,” Coetzee writes, “Walser needed to get a steady, rhythmic hand movement going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which reverie, composition, and the flow of the writing tool became much the same thing.” This process facilitated the transfer of Walser’s thoughts straight to the page, with the result that his late works read — and have been belatedly recognized as reading — like no other literature produced in his time. As Brett Baker at Painter’s table sees it,” Walser’s compressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) constructs full narratives than can be consumed rapidly – nearly ‘at a glance,’ as it were. Their short length allows the reader to revisit the work in detail, focusing on sentences, phrases, or words as one might examine the painted passages or marks on a canvas.”

These ultra-compressed works from the Bleistiftgebiet, or “pencil zone,” writes Foley Mendelssohn, “establish Walser as a modernist of sorts: the recycling of materials can make the texts look like collages, modernist mashups toeing the line between mechanical and personal production.” But they also make him look like the forerunner of another, later variety of experimental literature: in a longer New Yorker piece on Walser, Benjamin Kunkel proposes 1972 as a culturally appropriate year to publish The Robber, “a fitting date for a beautiful, unsummarizable work every bit as self-reflexive as anything produced by the metafictionists of the sixties and seventies.” The publication of his “microscripts,” in German as well as in translation, has ensured him an influence on writers of the twenty-first century — and not just their choice of font size.

For anyone interested in seeing a published version of Walser’s writing, see the book Microscripts, which features full-color illustrations by artist Maira Kalman.

via Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

J. R. R. Tolkien Writes & Speaks in Elvish, a Language He Invented for The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien was undoubtedly a storyteller, but he was even more of a world-builder. One may read the Lord of the Rings novels the first time for the high adventure, but one re-reads them to continue inhabiting the painstakingly crafted alternate reality of Middle-Earth. Tolkien put serious time and effort into the diversity of not just its magic, its geography, and its inhabitants, but also of its languages. Indeed, the whole of his masterwork could fairly be said to have served his linguistic interests first and foremost: “Invention of languages is the foundation,” he once wrote. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.”

An Oxford philologist with a special interest in Old Norse, Tolkien had been experimenting with constructed languages since adolescence. But it was The Lord of the Rings that allowed him to engage fully in that pursuit, spurring the creation of such tongues as Adûnaic, Dwarvish, and Entish. Like anyone of his linguistic expertise, he understood that, in reality, most languages come to us not in isolation but in families, and it is the family of Elvish languages — including Quendya, Exilic Quenya, Telerin, Sindarin, and Nandorin — that represents the pinnacle of his language-construction project.

In the video at the top of the post, Tolkien himself reads aloud an Elvish-language poem. Just below, you can see him writing in Elvish script, or Tengwar, one of the seven writing systems he created for The Lord of the Rings alone. He didn’t just assemble it out of forms that looked nice to him: much as with the Elvish language itself, he made sure that it plausibly descended from more basic ancestors, and that it reflected the history, social practices, and mythology of its fictional users. But nor are Elvish or Tengwar completely free of any influence from what’s spoken and written in our own world, given that Tolkien could draw on English, Old Norse, and Latin, but also Old English, Gothic, Spanish, Italian, and Greek.

Tolkien also took a strong interest in the Finnish language. In a letter to W. H. Auden, he likened it to “a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before.” The influence of Finnish manifests in certain traits of the Elvish language of Quenya — “the absence of any consonant combinations initially, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd, which are favored) and the fondness for the ending -inen, -ainen, -oinen” — but one suspects that Tolkien’s broader literary sensibility was shaped more by the Kalevala, the nineteenth-century national epic that inspired him to take up the study of Finnish in the first place. How close he ever got to mastery history hasn’t recorded, but as a fellow Finnish-learner, I can attest that se ei ole helppoa.

Related content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


Martin Amis (RIP) Explains Why American Populism Is a Con

In the later decades of his 50-year-long career as a novelist, the late Martin Amis had a reputation as something of a controversialist. This made more sense in his native England than in the America to which he later relocated, and whose largely non-literary provocateurs tend to an aggressive plainspokenness bordering on — and more recently, driving well into the territory of — vulgarity. “Intellectual snobbery has been much neglected,” says Amis in the Big Think interview clip above. His plea is for “more care about how people express themselves and more reverence, not for people of high social standing, but for people of decent education and training.”

This against populism, which “relies on a sentimental and very old-fashioned view that the uneducated population knows better, in its instincts, than the over-refined elite, that leads to anti-intellectualism, which is self-destructive for everyone”: the lionization, in other words, of the kind of figure given to declarations like “I go with my gut.”

In every other land, as Amis sees it, “brain has won over gut, but in America it still splits the nation.” It would be one thing if the viscera-trusting rabble-rousers actually worked to further the interests of the common man, but in every real-world scenario it turns out to be quite another. “It’s an act, populism. It’s always an act.”

An admirer of American democracy, Amis acknowledged the right to free speech as a vital element of that system. “You’ve got it or you haven’t,” he says in the clip just above, “and every diminution of freedom of speech diminishes everyone, and lessens the currency of freedom of speech.” But he also lays down a caveat: “The controversial statement has to be earned. It can’t just be tossed off. You have to be able to back it up.” He even describes himself as “a fan of political correctness” — of not “the outer fringe P.C., but raising the standards about what can be said.” This process comes with its own challenges, and “you have to sort of work round it a bit.” But since greater restrictions demand, and reward, more skillful subtlety, an adept writer will always be of two minds about free speech. It will surely be a while before we see another writer quite as adept as Martin Amis.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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