To celebrate the New York Review of Books’ reprint of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, we’re excerpting the introductory essay by Peter Brooks which discusses the frame narrative, exploring sexuality through a panther, and “the debt of dishonor.”

Honoré de Balzac is known for immensity, excess, all-night writing sessions in his monk’s robe sustained by countless cups of coffee, producing more than ninety novels and tales in the space of some twenty years. Rodin’s great, looming sculpture suggests a visionary who wanted to capture the whole of French society of his time, and more: the forces that animated it, the principles that made its wheels spin.

It may seem a paradox, then, to link Balzac’s vast Human Comedy to the adjective “short.” We think of Balzac as long, often too long—descriptions, explanations that correspond to the leisure associated with reading nineteenth-century novels, of a length for evenings without television or smartphones. His novels are often freighted with extended presentations of things and people, and weighty excurses on every imaginable subject. He was one of the first generation of writers to make a living from his work, and the need to generate ever more of it—since he was usually in debt—drove his pen. He produced masterpieces nonetheless, though not of the chiseled, perfect sort sought by Flaubert, for instance. Balzac’s claim lies rather in his capacity to invent, to imagine, to create literally hundreds of characters capable of playing out their dramas with convincing power. He stands as the first true realist in his ambition to see society as an organic system. Oscar Wilde came close to the heart of the matter when he declared: “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac’s.” Balzac “invents” the new century by being the first writer to represent its emerging urban agglomerations, its nascent capitalist dynamics, its rampant cult of the individual personality. By seeing and dramatizing changes that he mainly deplored, he initiated his readers into understanding the shape of the century. “Balzac’s great glory is that he pretended hardest,” declared his faithful disciple Henry James: In the art of make-believe, Balzac was the master.

Yet interspersed among the ninety-odd titles that make up The Human Comedy are a number of short stories and novellas that are among the best work Balzac did. Here he produces his striking effects, his thunderous climaxes, his acute psychological twists with greater economy than in the full-length novels. And he uses short fiction to try out some of his boldest imaginative flights. Here is the place to dramatize extremes of emotion: the loss of self in madness, artistic creation, and passion; the inventive forms taken by vengeance; the monomania of the artist; and, especially, the wilder shores of love, whether of a duchess, a castrato, or a panther. Somehow the short form works to liberate Balzac’s imagination from the need to be “the secretary of society,” as he put it. Not that society is missing here but rather that it, too, is given in its essence: as the conversation and interaction of social beings. In fact, Balzac’s short fiction tends to be extraordinarily fixed on the moment of oral exchange, on the telling of and the listening to stories. In this manner he renews an age-old tradition of oral storytelling, now given a new and knowing form. These stories, which often show us humanity in extreme situations, are also about the power of storytelling—and about the effect of that power on those listening.

Take for instance “Another Study of Womankind,” which opens at two o’clock in the morning. Félicité des Touches, herself a novelist, has asked the finest minds in her already select group of friends to linger after one of her large evening gatherings. The narrator, one of these chosen few, describes the scene:

Secrets artfully betrayed, exchanges both light and deep, everything undulates, spins, changes luster and color with each passing sentence. Keen judgments and breathless narrations follow one upon the next. Every eye listens, every gesture is a question, every glance an answer. There, in a word, all is perspicuity and reflection. Never did the phenomenon of speech, to which, when carefully studied and skillfully wielded, an actor or storyteller owes his glory, cast so overpowering a spell on me.

The phenomenon of speech stands at the very center of fictional creation, in the capacity to spin stories and to tell them to others. If, as Walter Benjamin tells us in “The Storyteller,” the novel is the form of the solitary modern individual—and a genre that one generally reads in solitude—Balzac’s many conversational tales take us back to an imagined golden age of storytelling where the living voice of the narrator is part of the story, and the reactions of listeners indicate the force of the story told and suggest also that there is a further story to be told about the relations of the tellers and the listeners. His characters evoke the spirit of an earlier age of sociability, all the while conscious that it is doomed by a world of commerce, journalism, and the devaluation of leisure. In “Another Study of Womankind,” the final episode is recounted by Horace Bianchon, the medical doctor who shows up repeatedly in The Human Comedy (we know several other guests as well from prior appearances in other novels and tales), and its effect is briefly registered: “The tale at an end, all the women rose from the table, and with this the spell Bianchon had cast on them was broken. Nevertheless, some had felt almost cold on hearing those final words.” This final tale of honor, vengeance, agony, and slow death casts a chill and breaks up the circle. Stories enchant but then leave us to meditate, alone, on their often sinister meanings.

Not only the tellers of stories but also the listeners to them are crucial here, and the scene of narrative exchange is itself dramatic. As Benjamin declared in his essay extolling the vanishing art of the oral tale, storytelling is about the transmission of wisdom. Something passes from teller to listener. It is this very process of transmission that matters to Balzac as much as the content of the tale. The act of narration can be dangerous, as the man who is about to begin telling the story of the origin of the Lanty family fortune warns the Marquise de Rochefide in “Sarrasine.”But she is impatient to hear. For his part, the narrator seems to believe that the intimacy of a late-night storytelling session alone with the marquise will bring an erotic reward. But the very subject of the story he has to tell proves difficult to manage, its effects uncontrollable. You can’t always get what you want by telling a story. You may be punished instead for what you have told.

A formalist critic would note that Balzac very often makes use of the “framed tale,” or the “embedded tale,” using an outer frame to establish the narrative situation and then turning the narration over to one of the characters. Sometimes, as in “Sarrasine,” the character who listens to the tale reemerges at the end to comment on it. In “Another Study of Womankind” there are multiple tellers and listeners, members of a privileged Parisian group that for Balzac retains the conversational art of prerevolutionary aristocratic society. In contrast, “The Red Inn” gives a Gothic twist to the embedded tale. Its recital of gore, guilt, and responsibility is chilling enough, but the main drama may come in its effect on one of its listeners. The tale is proto-Dostoyevsky, adumbrating elements of Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky was an admiring disciple of Balzac, and we often feel the French novelist giving a first sketch of those damned questions at the center of the Russian’s work.

Maybe it’s because these short stories often speak directly to the very process of creation itself that Balzac appears to enjoy himself and to let himself go here more than anywhere else. Nowhere is this more evident than in the short sketch entitled “Facino Cane,” where the embedded tale concerns an old blind musician—he lives in the Paris hospice for the blind—who claims to be a Venetian nobleman with secret knowledge of how to break into the hidden treasury of the doges, which is piled high with gold and diamonds. The reward for listening to his story—for believing in it—could be an immense fortune. The impoverished young writer to whom this story is confided, and who tells it to us, is dazzled by the possible payoff from what he’s heard. Living in a working-class district of Paris, he has so far been content with the riches found in his imaginative life. He uses his imagination to enter into the lives of those he meets or, simply, those he follows in his urban rambles. He makes the claim that “observation had already become an intuitive habit; it could penetrate into the soul without neglecting the body, or rather, so thoroughly did it grasp the external details that it moved immediately beyond: It allowed me to live a person’s life, let me put myself in his place, the way a dervish in The Thousand and One Nights would take over a person’s body and soul by pronouncing certain words over him.” Here the grim realities of the Parisian poor—and the narrator himself is living on only a few sous a day—are displaced or transformed by a movement of the imagination into another person, allowing the creative thinker to live vicariously. That’s not quite right: The imaginative leap here goes beyond what we normally think of as vicarious existence to a kind of identity theft. You can be yourself and another through your capacity to enter into others’ stories. “Listening to these people, I could join in their lives: I would feel their rags on my back, I would be walking in their tattered shoes; their longings, their needs would all move through my soul, or my soul through theirs.” The narrator wonders at the sources of his gift, fears it may carry a certain curse: “To what do I owe this gift? Is it some second sight? One of those talents whose overuse could lead to madness? I have never looked into the sources of this capacity—I have it and I use it, that’s all.”

This could of course be Balzac talking about his own extraordinary gift for getting under the skin of others, espousing their vision of the world, creating a contemporary Thousand and One Nights wrought from the apparently ungrateful material of contemporary Paris, which turns out to be as full of stories as any sultan could wish. Balzac was in fact haunted by the belief that he might be creating too much—overreaching, usurping a power that should only be wielded by God the Father. The fear of madness—which afflicts Facino Cane as it threatens the narrator who discovers him and listens to his tale—lurks throughout The Human Comedy. It may lie in wait for those who attempt to know and to create too much. The work is full of mad inventors—such as Balthazar Claës in The Search for the Absolute; or the composer in “Gambara,” whose invented “panharmonicon” produces a cacophony, though he can sing beautifully when drunk; or the painter Frenhofer of “The Unknown Masterpiece,” who appears to destroy his masterpiece in searching to perfect it. Again and again Balzac makes us privy to a fear that his teeming imagination may lead him over the brink. And in fact the ultimate wise man of The Human Comedy, the philosopher Louis Lambert, ends in madness and aphasia after an attempt at self-
castration on the eve of his marriage. There seems to be a haunting fear that self-expression will meet with an insurmountable obstacle: with sterility, madness, the inability to speak.

But madness may be something more than the loss of reason: a state of the ecstatic, of a beyond reason—the place you end up when you have pushed beyond the permitted limits of human thought, creation, experience. It is the most extreme version of the many extreme psychological conditions that interest Balzac. “Adieu,”the story of a woman who goes mad following the crossing of the Be­rezina River during the retreat of the French army after Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, offers one of the most extraordinary probes into the psyche in a period that was already intuiting the Freudian revolution to come. Balzac was always interested in the latest scientific (or pseudoscientific) lore. In this tale he seems to have picked up some of the premises of the traitement moral developed by Dr. Philippe Pinel, who took over the directorship of the Salpêtrière hospital for insane and incurable women at the time of the French Revolution. His “psychological treatment” (moral in French can mean psychological as well as moral) often involved inducing patients to relive the moment of trauma that severed them from normal functioning. Pinel understood that a return to the initial scene of suffering that caused the flight from reality into illness could be the starting point of a cure. Despairing of any other form of therapy for his beloved Stéphanie de Vandières, Philippe de Sucy in “Adieu” attempts the reconstruction, more nearly the reproduction of the moment of trauma and loss. It reminds me of the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, where the falsely suspected Her­mione after a gap of many years is ransomed from seeming death: “Oh, she’s warm! / If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” So in that case white magic, not black. Balzac’s result is less certainly on the lawful side. The attempt to cure insanity may itself be a kind of overreaching, something for which a high price will be exacted.

Madness and the erotic are also closely allied in Balzac. In “A Passion in the Desert,” surely one of the strangest tales ever published, a French soldier taking part in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign gets lost in the Maghreb desert, finds a small oasis with palm trees and a cave, and takes shelter—only to discover that it is inhabited by a panther. The soldier’s developing relations with the panther, which is constantly compared to an alluring and dangerous woman, result in one of Balzac’s most telling explorations of erotic passion. The panther allows him to talk about female sexuality (as understood by a male: those teeth!) in a way that wasn’t possible when talking about “respectable” women of society. As the French soldier caresses the beast he calls “Mignonne” with his dagger, he finds in himself emotions he has never known before. The extreme situation seems to cut through social repression. In the extended analogy of panther to woman, Balzac is remarkably explicit in describing a kind of sexual foreplay leading to what the soldier later describes as a “misunderstanding.” There are other kinds of extreme situations of love and sexuality: Balzac stages moments of near-incest, same-sex relations among both women and men, fetishism, borderline S/M, as well as intoxicating self-immolations in chastity. Proust, an avid reader of Balzac, was especially alert to such moments. He noted that “under the apparent and outward action of the drama circulate the mysterious laws of flesh and passion”: among other things, an acknowledgment of Balzac as precursor in the exploration of sexualities that did not quite dare speak their name.

Again in “A Passion in the Desert”we are given a framed tale of some complexity: The story opens at Monsieur Martin’s menagerie (an actual Parisian attraction of Balzac’s time). The narrator’s woman companion expresses surprise that Martin’s beasts have been so thoroughly tamed that he can enter their cage with impunity. To which the narrator responds that he, too, was surprised on his first visit to the menagerie, but that he encountered there a one-legged soldier who claimed it could be easily explained. It is from this soldier that the narrator heard the tale of the panther met in the desert, which he now writes down for his woman friend—but withholding the end, which he will have to deliver as a spoken coda to the tale. The links between the tale told and the situation of its telling are by no means obvious here. What, if anything, does the soldier’s amputated leg have to do with his adventure with the panther? Are her teeth responsible? And if we learn from contemporary accounts that Monsieur Martin was reputed to master his wild beasts by satisfying them sexually before a performance, what further connections do we want to tease out among the various forms of passion? Freud began his momentous Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality with a discussion of “the perversions,” in order to go on to show that “normal” sexuality was simply what was most widely accepted on a spectrum of “psychosexuality,” that is to say, sex in the mind.

There are passions other than the erotic at play in these tales: those aroused by politics and money, for instance. In “Z. Marcas,”the ups and downs of the title character’s political career during a turbulent period in French history are told episodically, partially, obliquely by the two students who share a landing with him in a cheap lodging house. It’s as if Balzac were writing a political biography but refusing to do it straight, understanding that the story of a disillusioned political veteran can be more effectively told through its effects on two ambitious young men with their futures before them. If Marxist critics, starting with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have been among the most appreciative of Balzac’s readers, it’s because Balzac —who loudly declared himself a monarchist and Catholic—had no use for the compromise regimes of his lifetime, and denounced their incoherence and corruption. Born in 1799, in the year following Napoleon’s coup d’état, Balzac lived as a child through the epic of the Napoleonic Wars and the Empire, then the collapse of Waterloo and the subsequent Restoration monarchy, which in turn collapsed in the Revolution of 1830, which brought the rule of the “Citizen King,” Louis Philippe d’Orléans (from the younger branch of the royal family), along with the exile of the last of the Bourbon monarchs. The Restoration ought to have pleased Balzac—but it was in his judgment not a true, vigorous reinstatement of monarchy but a simulacrum, where the aged rulers of France were out of touch with the real dynamics of the time, and the restored aristocracy was far more concerned with its privileges and petty class distinctions than with the responsibilities of power and leadership. It ended, as it deserved, in revolution, in 1830, and the “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis Philippe, no longer king of France but “King of the French.” Marcas suffers through these regimes, with the reward of ingratitude.

Balzac’s quarrel with the Restoration returns in “The Duchesse de Langeais,” the four-part novella in which the opening of the second chapter is devoted to a disquisition about the place of the Faubourg Saint-Germain in French politics and history. Named for the quarter of Paris where the aristocracy began settling in large town houses in the late seventeenth century—many of them still stand in the seventh arrondissement of Paris—the “noble Faubourg” was a place, a class, and a concept. But according to Balzac, it never took on the role that it should have for the Restoration to be a success. The nobility, concerned with its own privileges and prerogatives, didn’t recruit aspiring young men of talent—like Balzac—who were only too eager to join its ranks. It failed to act on the model of the Tory Party in England, which reached into the middle class to renew its forces and anchor itself more firmly in the affections of the citizenry. The French Restoration was a gerontocracy—the two kings of the era, Louis XVIII and Charles X, were both brothers of Louis XVI, guillotined in 1793, and old men by the time they ascended the throne—out of touch with the youth of the country. It was, in Balzac’s judgment, a cold, mean, selfish time. The result was a more and more vigorous and vocal political opposition. Journalists were in the vanguard during the three “glorious days” of the Revolution of 1830: New rules tightening censorship of newspapers helped to spark the insurrection.

The Revolution was no more to Balzac’s liking than the Restoration. The rule of a king who dressed in the bourgeois black frock coat and top hat only confirmed his cynical view of the forces in control of his country. France entered an era of capitalist and industrial expansion. “Enrichissez-vous”: get rich, the prime minister François Guizot said (perhaps apocryphally) to his countrymen. And so the French did—at least those who had the means to invest in factories, railroads, and various manipulative stock market schemes. The workers—witness the revolts of the Lyons silk workers and various short-lived uprisings of the Paris proletariat—were largely excluded from this newfound prosperity. Balzac, writing most of his Human Comedy in the 1830s and 1840s, after the July Revolution but setting the majority of his tales under the Restoration, has the benefit of a historian’s hindsight on a regime and a cultural moment that failed. That lends depth to his analysis. But hindsight also increased his anxiety about the future of French society. If social historians continue to find Balzac a great source text, it’s because he delved into most of the forces that were transforming his country and saw what the Marxists call the contradictions of a nascent capitalist society.

“Capitalist” is what Balzac calls the usurer Gobseck in the long short story, or short novella, that bears his name. It’s possibly a misuse of the term, yet Gobseck’s loans, often at exorbitant rates of interest, do oil the capitalist machinery. At a time when loans between individuals most often took the form of the kind of IOU known as a lettre de change—an exchangeable and discountable promissory note—the moneylender was a key figure. Gobseck sits at the still center of the turning earth in The Human Comedy. He probably appears in more of the novels and tales than any other character, with the possible exception of the lawyer Derville, who is the narrator of Gobseck’s story here. Sooner or later, it seems, everyone must come to Gobseck for cash. In this manner, as he tells the young Derville, he gets to see the spectacle of human emotion in its rawest and most stripped-down condition. Gobseck lives without wearing himself out through the ravages of passion, including sex, that he sees devouring his compatriots. He has learned the superior pleasures of the observer. “Well, I tell you,” he says to Derville, “every human passion, writ larger by the play of social interests, they all come and parade before me in my life of calm. Furthermore, that scientific curiosity of yours, a kind of struggle with man always getting the worst of it—I replace it with insight into the springs that set mankind moving. In a word, I possess the world with no effort at all, and the world has no grip on me.”

Money offers possession of the world without an expenditure of life’s vital forces—which Balzac believed to be limited, expendable in a brief flaming existence, or else to be hoarded over the long life of the miser and the observer. The elegant young men and women of Paris parade through Gobseck’s life—as well as the honest seamstress Fanny Malvaut, whom he will bring to Derville’s attention. In the process, we as readers get to see the stuff of other dramas recorded elsewhere in The Human Comedy in a new perspective. In particular, “Gobseck”casts a new light on the final chapter of Balzac’s most famous novel, Le Père Goriot. In Old Goriot we saw Anastasie de Restaud, one of Goriot’s daughters, as a tragic figure exploited by her husband; here we are given the husband’s point of view, as he struggles to rescue the family fortune that Anastasie is squandering on her unscrupulous lover, Maxime de Trailles.

Derville tells the story of Gobseck late one evening in the
noble house of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The Vicomtesse is concerned that her daughter, Camille, is paying too much attention to the suit of young Comte Ernest de Restaud. She believes him to be without fortune, and though his father is of impeccable nobility, his mother (née Goriot) she can scarcely tolerate. Ostensibly, then, Derville tell his story of Gobseck in order to reassure the Vicomtesse and Camille that Ernest will soon come into a handsome fortune (though the story becomes racy enough along the way that the Vicomtesse feels obliged to pack Camille off to bed). It’s a long detour through Gobseck’s affairs—including the loan at fifteen percent that allows Derville to set up his law office—before we reach the story of how the old Comte de Restaud set up a transfer of funds into Gobseck’s name in order to save them from his wife—but then on his deathbed was so closely guarded by her (since she is afraid he will disinherit her two adulterine children in favor of Ernest) that he could not sign the codicil that would have returned the money to his son. Anastasie, Ernest, and the rest of the family are reduced to penury—which proves character-building. And now that Gobseck has died, at age eighty-nine, Ernest will have a tidy sum.

A kind of cautionary tale, then, to assuage the fears of the Vicomtesse about a future son-in-law, but far more than that: the story of money itself in its accumulation. Money is indeed one of Balzac’s chief protagonists throughout The Human Comedy, and here we are at the heart of its acquisition and growth. It is telling that at the
end of the tale, Gobseck has acquired more than he can disburse: Bankrupt creditors have filled his apartment with things, with goods, many of them spoiling and useless, a kind of accumulation of surplus capital that the system cannot handle. Though it is only alluded to in this story, the future of Gobseck’s cash legacy is instructive. He leaves it to his one descendant, his niece Esther. She has had an extraordinary existence, from bit player at the Opéra to fashionable prostitute, then redemption through her passionate love for the young poet and novelist Lucien de Rubempré—but then a forced return to prostitution willed by Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin, the former convict and mastermind of Lucien’s career who knows Lucien must raise one million francs in order to buy back his mother’s entailed properties, proving his right to carry the name of landed gentry and enabling his marriage to Clotilde de Grandlieu of the noble Faubourg. The plot goes awry. Esther is sold to the Baron de Nucingen, an Alsatian banker and the husband of Goriot’s other daughter, Delphine—but after one night spent honoring “the debt of dishonor,” as she calls it, Esther commits suicide. She leaves Nucingen’s payment in an envelope for Lucien under her pillow—but it’s stolen by the household servants, which will lead to Lucien’s arrest. When Derville tracks her down with the news of her immense legacy, it’s too late. Too late for everyone: Esther is dead, and Lucien has hanged himself in prison. The money is parceled out to Lucien’s provincial relatives. The trajectory of Gobseck’s fortune suggests Balzac’s thoroughly ironic view of the new moneyed classes coming to power in France.

“The Duchesse de Langeais,” the final tale of the volume, clearly cannot be classified as a short story or tale but rather as what Henry James called “the blessed nouvelle,” indicating by his word choice that he thought it a French form little used by English novelists. Its advantage for Balzac seems evident, and here it yields one of his most perfect works. “The Duchesse de Langeais”shows, once again, how short forms both stimulate and discipline Balzac’s extraordinary imaginative powers. Rather than bursting the seams of novelistic form—as some of his longer works do—the short stories and novellas seem packed to the stretching point but nonetheless intact, with a palpable form to them. Here Balzac’s mastery becomes evident in his concentration of force within form.

The story of the duchess and her admirer General Armand de Montriveau opens with a notable and enigmatic abruptness on a rocky island in the Mediterranean, site of a convent of the Barefoot Carmelites where the music of the choir of nuns reveals to the interested, passionate listener—the general who has lost her and has been seeking her everywhere—the hidden presence of a Frenchwoman. Then we flash back some years, to the games of love and seduction as they are played in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. As we read into the third chapter, though, these will take on a sinister kind of seriousness, leading to a scene that might figure in The Story of O and seems to result in an erotic conversion but one that the other party can’t understand. And then the fourth chapter, returning to the Mediterranean isle, plays out the dramatic denouement. The presentation of the story is highly cinematic: It is full of strikingly rendered settings and moments of intense confrontation and fraught dialogue—and it has been made into a film several times, most recently by Jacques Rivette (in a version that to me loses much of the dynamic of the story). The novella shows Balzac’s ability to manipulate different time strata with perfect ease, to reveal the deep nature of the central enigmas of love and passion parsimoniously, so that when we think we have understood it’s only in part, and perhaps most notably his ability to sustain a kind of erotic tension throughout: Games of love become almost unbearably intense. Desire rules over the organization of life, and of story. “The Duchesse de Langeais” is one of the most perfect of Balzac’s works—everything, even the very baroque excursus on organ music as a go-between bringing together the divine and the human, even the scene of incipient S/M, fits perfectly and ministers to the overall effect.

Balzac has repeatedly, from the beginning of his career, been accused of writing badly. It is true that he often reaches for a kind of sublime that seems tasteless and over the top. We may sometimes wonder at Henry James’s unstinting admiration for someone who had little of his own delicacy of touch. Yet once we have accepted the premises of Balzac’s kind of expressionism—his recourse to melodramatic plots, hyperbolic speech, and dramatic confrontations where all the moral stakes are laid on the table—we can see that when he is writing at highest intensity he is incomparable. The goal of his melodramatic imagination is to find the latent intensities of life, to make dramatic action tell us about the ethical stakes of our engagements with ambition, love, and one another. That this takes him beyond the bounds of the “realism” for which he became famous into something else, some more occult realm where the real is trumped by the nearly surreal, has bothered those who want to confine the novel to more behavioristic premises. Balzac refuses to be confined in any manner—for him, fiction has a permit to go anywhere and explore anything. His short fiction may give him the greatest freedom of all; it allows the exploratory probe onto ground that not only is forbidden to politer, more repressed forms of expression but also is only partly grasped. Some of its mystery can never quite be known. To open up what society and the novel of manners repress, to stage a kind of explosive upthrust of that which is ordinarily kept down, under control, is Balzac’s delight and his passion. He asks to be read in a spirit of adventure and daring.

Peter Brooks

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