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Norman Mailer: Letters to Jack Abbott

We publish here the third of three selections from the letters of Norman Mailer, with notes provided by Michael Lennon. This group of letters spans three decades; the first four touch on Mailer’s relationship to Jewish writers or to his own Jewishness. We’ve included two letters to Jack Abbott, with whom Mailer conducted a long correspondence while Abbott was in a Utah state prison. All the letters by Norman Mailer published in this and preceding issues of The New York Review are in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

—The Editors

To Alfred Kazin1

May 26, 1959

Dear Alfred,

I want to thank you for your good paragraph on The Time of Her Time,2 especially since your letter made it clear that your defense of it is more a matter of professional duty than outright pleasure.

I loved your letter,3 which is a strong way to put it except that it gave me a pleasure it obviously did not give you: I had the feeling, well now we know what to talk to each other about, and I’m glad you laid it out so frankly. I got my laugh out of “the Rabbi of screwing, the Talmudist of fucking,” because more than once in the last year when I’ve been having an argument with some of my hip friends I have said to them something on the general order of, “Hush now, the Rabbi is speaking.” And of course the coldness and grimness you talk about in my work is probably the single most unattractive feature of what I manage to do, but shit, Alfred, you know as well as I do that one does not write away from such a large part of one’s temperament. One tries to write through it and maybe eventually out of it.

There is also the little matter of the real temper of the time. Even if I were capable of writing about sex with the warmth of Lawrence, there would still be the more abstract matter of whether one should. I am more or less obsessed with the idea that sex is close to dying in a new ice-age of the psyche, and I think the only way to change one’s readers and warm them—for yes, I am guilty of a messianic lust—is to make them set up camp on the ice for a while.

In a way this beggars my intent. Most of our good novels have been written about people who start with youth, some heat, and much innocence, and in this new book4 I would like to do the opposite, to begin with characters who are monsters of self-consciousness and try for the more difficult and perhaps impossible trip into a terrain where emotion becomes real again. Whether I can bring it off is of course another matter. But on the limited ground of “The Time of Her Time” I still wonder if you don’t tend to make Sergius a little too much of a direct spokesman for me—after all, I’m not over six feet, blonde, goy, and more anti-semitic than not.

There’s so much to talk about that I’d like to remind you of your suggestion last Christmas season that we have lunch. I’m usually not too alert in the middle of the day so if you’d rather, maybe you and Ann would like to come over for dinner some night, or we could go out, you and me, and have a few drinks downtown or uptown. Suppose I call you in a few days.

Best,
Norman

To Arnold Kemp5

April 26, 1965

Dear Arnold,

Just a comment on Herzog.6 What I meant when I said Bellow has no ideas7 was not that there were no ideas in Herzog to be pondered, but rather that these ideas were not Bellow’s own theses, but rather ideas he had picked up in his reading. His mind is very intelligent, very cultured, very cultivated. He’s read a million books and remembered them, but he is not an original thinker. It’s not that I’m that sure about anything, it’s that I go with the animal part of my brain when I’m encountering an idea I have not met before, and none of the ideas in Herzog were in that sense the least bit fresh. Just a thought, but I did want to send it on to you.

Best for now,
Norman

To Jack Abbott8

April 18, 1979

Dear Jack,

Well, I finished the book.9 It came in December to 1,969 pages of double-spaced manuscript, and I wasn’t that happy with a lot of the style so I went through it to make it as tight as I could and came out with 1,681 pages. How good it is I don’t know, but I think it’s fairly good at the worst, and very flat in style, for which I worked. Very noncommittal on the surface, for which I also worked. There’s something in Gilmore’s story that got to me. I felt that it might provide a datum for Americans, something that ideally millions of them could end up reading, and give them something in common to discuss and argue about. How you’ll react to it I can’t begin to imagine but I can promise you I’m curious as hell. I’m also going to put your name in the acknowledgements.10

The way it worked out, I have very little about Gilmore’s 12 years in jail head on. The book covers the nine months and the nine days from the time he leaves Marion on April 9 of ‘76 until he’s executed on January 17, 1977. And in that stretch, there are numerous echoes of his prison experience, and part of my understanding of that experience has come from your letters, and I think you’ll feel the echoes of some of the things you wrote to me in Gilmore. But I believed that he would share your sentiments. Since in his own way he’s a profoundly religious man with an unshakeable conviction of karma, he is also about as different from you as any two good convicts can be, and he’s considerably softer than you and gives much more parley to what you would consider the enemy.

Nonetheless, I do not think I could have come to understand him without the letters you’ve written to me…. As you know, I thought at one time, months ago, of putting some of your letters directly into the book, even incorporating some of your experience into Gilmore. But I came to the conclusion that I wanted nothing imaginary in Gilmore’s makeup. In other words, nothing I could not be certain he had felt would I put into his mouth or his experience. I go back to this idea I had that the book must be a datum, that if it was to exist as some piece of true evidence, true existence, it had to be more real than any book of its sort ever put together before. You will see when you read it. There’s no attempt to decorate, to amplify, to underline, to develop, to exaggerate, even to take the natural profit, that profit might a novelist always take. It is a terribly sober document, and twice sober because the elements of the story are so exceptional and painful and funny and occasionally noble, and occasionally sordid. I confess I’m impatient for you to read it and get your reactions, even though that’ll be many months.

In the meantime, we’ll correspond. That is, I think we’ll correspond. There’s an ideological gulf between us so profound that I do not know how long we can talk to one another as intellectuals. You see, I was a Marxist for a number of years, not as good or thorough, nor certainly so devoted a Marxist as yourself, although my friend [Jean] Malaquais is more than your match when it comes to Marxist culture, and I was his disciple for a period, and eventually turned away from his thought because I found it—and this word will infuriate you—unendurably arid. And in your thought I find his, except you underline what he could never quite bring himself to admit, which is that the logic leads to violence and violence, indeed, is the only outcome of the logic.

Now, I am not one of those people who say, “Oh, horrors! We’re talking of violence.” I know some violence is one of the fundamental emotions in all human behavior, one of the ineradicable ones, like sex and a passion for justice. But violence in the grip of an intellectual system is always frightening to me because I feel its logical outcome can be found in the acts of Julian nihilists in Paris in the early ‘60s and late ‘50s,11 who placed plastic bombs in mailboxes, and the mailboxes would blow up two hours later and kill anyone who was at the street corner, including, quite conceivably, the wife or children of one of their friends, since how the hell are you going to know who’s going to be in that area at that time?

Now, you can say in reply that the violence of which you speak is altogether different, and purposeful, and to a logical point, and I can only say to you in reply that my experience tells me that any intellectual system which is founded complacently upon the idea that violence is a special weapon available to it has to end in some aspect of that nihilism that believes that the destruction of systems is the brunt of future existence. And I have bogged down myself in what I consider the far greater horror of having to live with the world as it is, precisely what you would call, weak, intellectual bourgeoisie self-indulgence. Jewish, doubtless, since I am Jewish. And you would sneer at it.

And I would say to you that what I found most disturbing in all your thought is that what you like, you adopt and adapt immediately to your intellectual system. You need drugs in order to alleviate the soul-killing monotony of prison, so drugs are part of your system. But if I take drugs, then I’m just a weak fucking bourgeois intellectual, and soft. You speak of Cuba as having to suckle the dugs of the world in order to stay alive and I agree. But you do not take the next step and say that an animal which exists on wolf milk is likely to take on the qualities of the wolf. You give Cuba, in effect, more charity than you allow to those of us bourgeois intellectuals who struggle against the system even while living within it.

You ascribe virtues to China, or is it to Viet Nam that you do not allow the other. How is it that I know without even discussing it, that on the war between China and Viet Nam that took place, one or the other is obligatorily all right and the other all wrong? I wonder which one you would pick, in fact, I am curious, Jack. But what I do know is that you will not admit that one gang of geniuses, fools, fuckups, good soldiers, and corrupt ones, is facing another precise such gang, and that the angels and the demons are at war with the devils and the saints.

The conditions of your existence have been so incredibly harsh that I never dream of sitting in judgment upon you. Your boast that other men could never endure what you’ve endured is doubtless correct. I think it is. I’m not at all sure I could have gone through half of what you have. Nonetheless, it may have made it impossible for us to truly talk and understand one another, because I will never enter a dialogue with a man whose mind I cannot change in some degree. I enter that dialogue with the notion that he will change my mind even as I will alter his, and that is why we are engaging in the discussion. With you I do not get that feeling…. I can’t argue with a man whose mind is made of steel. Steel is not the proper material of mind, as far as I’m concerned. For example, I find you supporting the Soviet Union versus Israel. Now I’m no automatic Zionist with a hardon, and I don’t think Israel is the answer to every problem on earth. I don’t have the knee-jerk reflex of saying “Is this good for Israel?” Far from it. But I do think that in simple humanitarian terms quite apart from class relations, that there are a few hundred thousand Jews who are miserable in Russia and would be less miserable in Israel, then let them go there. Yet you support a country like the Soviet Union which you call “social imperial,” if I remember your phrase correctly.

In any case, that country which is a perversion of socialism you defend against another country, Israel, which is another perversion of socialism or social democracy. And what you’re leaving out of account is the horror behind it all. Just as I don’t know what it is to be a convict, you the fuck don’t know what it is to be a Jew.12 You don’t know what it is to have six million of your people killed when there are only twelve million of them on earth. You don’t know the profound and fundamental stunting of existence that got into the blood cells of every Jew after Hitler had done his work. It’s easy for you, it’s contemptuous, you say “There’s Israel doing the lackey’s work for the U.S. against the bold, brave Arab nations”—who, as you know full well, have the most hideous prisons in the history of civilized existence. Yet you have your knee-jerk reflexes, and one of them is up the Arabs down the Israelis.

And I know that we can’t talk about those things, or a thousand others. I know that I can’t tell you that I started as a Marxist and am now a religious existentialist, and have beliefs that are parallel to yours, because I think we might even share a great role in the thoughts if the world does not get better, dramatically better, and probably better through the agency of profound and visionary ideas, which involve a vast change in the very fundament of things, or the world is going to get profoundly worse. But that we can discuss what some of those ideas might be I doubt. You’ve a Marxist-Leninist vision, and I know enough to know those ideas die the hardest of all. This last remark of mine will, of course, convince you of the strength and correctness of your thought, but I confess to you that I prefer ideas which are fragile and delicate, and have to survive each day and be recreated each day under the most difficult of conditions.

In any case, you’ve been generous enough to give me unstintingly of your thought and I’ve now given you an indication of mine.

Your pen pal,
Norman

To Jack Abbott

April 26, 1984

Dear Jack,

Having gotten back from Russia, I finally had a chance to sit down and read your letters of March 30 and April 13, and this will be in answer to it. Incidentally, on Russia, I know you’re eager to hear what I thought but I’m trying to write a piece for Parade Magazine, which will say what I thought. So for now, let me just indicate that in my impression, which is admittedly superficial, since I was only there for two weeks and traveled around as a solitary tourist, the main feeling I had is that it’s a tough and abrasive country to live in, and very difficult in the number of frustrations one encounters in trying to do simple things, but it’s really not a police state so much as a terribly oppressed and oppressive society and as a result the people are very moving.

Most of them, especially the older ones, look like old club fighters who took tremendous punches in their ring careers and then retired and got hit three times by a truck. I got to tell you, I just don’t see it as a warlike country. It’s more a place that’s just fucked up and as you [know] so well, full of despair. Still, when you compare what it’s gone through next to what we have here, you feel a little uneasy as an American at how spoiled we are. In which “we” I do not include you—I don’t think of you as having been spoiled by life (that’s a joke, son).

Anyway, I want to talk about your letters because there’s a lot in them, but I can’t answer everything you bring up (as usual I can’t), still there are a lot of things I want to tell you about that’ll be of interest to you. One of them is you asked about the Jews in Russia, and you know, one of the funny aspects of Russian history is that back around 950 or 980 AD, the king, I think his name was Vladimir,13 of Russia who was then in Kiev, decided he no longer wanted [it] to be a pagan nation and wanted another religion, and he sent four messengers—to Rome, to Constantinople, to somewhere in the Arab world to study Islam, and to the Jews who at that time lived in Kazar, or lived around southern Russia—I’m not sure precisely where but somewhere around the Crimea and the Caucasus, and were called Khazars, indeed, the Jews had had quite a civilization there.

After these four religious were duly considered by Vladimir, he chose the Greek Orthodox from Constantinople because his messengers from there told him that the cathedral of Saint Sophia was as beautiful as heaven, and that appealed to him immensely. But if he’d chosen the Jewish religion, God know[s] what the history of the world would have been today. Anyway, that’s a historical fillip to whet your attention.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Khazars, you can find a good deal about them in [Heinrich] Graetz’s 6-volume History of the Jews [1891], I would guess somewhere in the third volume, but it could be toward the end of the second. I just don’t believe it would be as far along as the fourth.

You asked about getting a cassette player and tapes that would teach you to speak Hebrew. If no one has provided you with a cassette yet, tell me how to send one to you and how to submit it officially through the authorities so you can get it. I’d be happy to do that and I’d be happy to send you tapes as well. The only thing is, Jack, that you’re going to get tapes of Modern Hebrew, and while it will give you a knowledge of how to speak Hebrew, I’m not certain how classical it is.

There have been great changes in Hebrew, in modern Hebrew, in order to make it a useful speaking language that can deal with technology, etc. So I don’t know how much of the old accent is kept, although my guess is it would stay the same to some extent, or it’s doubtless softer and more fluid and faster. Ancient Hebrew, classical Hebrew, as you’ve guessed, has a wonderful sound and is indeed a very masculine language full of harsh, strong powerful tones, sounds of rocks striking against one another, rocks breaking. It’s not a fluid language so much as architectural, sculpted. Sounds take shapes when you speak it, wind rolls in your throat.

I exaggerate to make the point because of course it doesn’t sound quite that strong. But I wonder if you were able to speak to that rabbi to get any idea of Hebrew? It’s possible he was a poor timid soul and petrified of talking to you. I was moved when I read the scene. You were waiting for so long to talk to a rabbi and then when it finally happened, it’s through a steel door and the guards interrupting it on top of it, the guy himself was probably in awe of your reputation. What a comedy for anyone but yourself. It’s tough gruel, Jack, I know it. Anyway, let me know about the cassettes. I’d be happy to help out.

You ask about Joseph and Moses in Egypt and I tell you that there are many many arguments over this, which dynasty it occurred in and so forth. Some believe it was Thutmose III, others Ramses II, a few say the Hyksos. Others even nominate Queen Hatshepsut. Pay your money and take your choice. As you may remember, I like picking the reign of Ramses II but making very little of it, Moses being seen by the Egyptians as some kind of whacko Hebrew captain, who defected.

As for the Talmud and the Zohar, I was impressed with your grasp of it. It could be said that the Talmud has to do with earth and the Zohar with heaven. Another way of describing the two is that the Talmud has many variations, and indeed is a book that has as many colors as Joseph’s coat, is nonetheless ultimately a work of law and commentaries on the law whereas the Zohar is an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of existence. The Kabala and the Zohar are very closely related, for example, and the Kabala, of course, will drive you out of your mind when you finally get to it. I predict that you will find it extraordinarily beautiful. And it may occupy your mind for the longest time, but take your time getting to it, because the Kabala can take you over.

At any rate, the Talmud is something you should read. I don’t think you have to try to take in all of it. If you can get hold of one volume, and I have a set at home of 26 volumes in what’s called the Soncino edition,14 published in London. If it’s possible to buy the Talmud in individual books rather than in an entire set, which is prohibitively expensive and probably would cost close to a thousand bucks by now, I’d be happy to send you one volume. As I say, that’s all you need, because you can spend 2 years reading one volume.

What it consists of, essentially, is the attempt of the Jews in the few centuries before and after the birth of Christ to deal with the problems of ritual and what to do when things went wrong. If a man brought in a goat to be sacrificed and before the goat got to the altar, the goat defecated, the beast was impure as given by law. But what was then to be done with the beast? Was it to be killed? If it was killed, was the meat to be given back to the man who brought it in? What prayers had to be said to remove the defecation from the temple properly so that no evil presence was left? You can see that that one simple act of the animal thinking he was going to be sacrificed and panicking could be enough to open 20 or 30 or 40 questions that were of burning importance for those people because their temple and their altar could certainly not be polluted. On the other hand, the poor man had rights also. They didn’t want him to lose the fruits of his labor.

It’s really sort of beautiful the way these minds that developed only in the culture of the Talmud nonetheless pushed their intellectual conclusions further and further and split more and more hairs. There are a great many people, myself included, who believe that one of the reasons that so many Jews make lawyers, and very good ones, is the heritage in our blood from the Talmud, and from the close reasoning of the arguments.

Now while there’s a good deal of poetry in the Talmud as well and parables and all sorts of stuff, the true metaphysics and mysticism of the Jews is to be found in the Zohar. It’s really much more advanced than the Talmud and before you go too far into the Zohar, I think you’d be happier to catch a hold of one of the books from the Talmud to have some idea of what the Zohar is built upon, because while the authorship of the Zohar is much in dispute and there are great arguments about whether it was an oral tradition or was composed by certain Jewish rabbis in Spain around 1000 A.D., give or take a couple of hundred years either way, the key factor that’s obvious by the internal evidence is that the Zohar depends for its existence upon people who were conversant in the Talmud. One writer who could shed a lot of light for you on these matters is an author who’s a famed Hebrew scholar named Gershom Scholem.15

Finally, Jack, I want to conclude with the thing that excites me most of all, and that’s how you’re talking of trying to write what I gather to be a novel about ancient times, particularly about the period when the Jews were in Judea, and that I think would be exciting as hell. It would really stretch your mind and even give a focus to all your intellectual explorations. So if you’re in the mood to go on a venture like that, well, Jack, my hat’s off to you and I’ll be ready to help if you need me. In the interim, let me know what you need, whether money is of any use to you, and keep as well as you can, friend.

Cheers,
Norman

To Helen Morris,
The Reader’s Catalogue16
627 Commercial Street,
Provincetown, MA

January 16, 1988

Dear Helen Morris,

Appended is my list. With the exception of Huckleberry Finn, which I reread recently, the other nine books were devoured in my freshman year at Harvard, and gave me the desire, which has never gone completely away, to be a writer, an American writer. They’re all selections from the mainstream of American novels, not a surprise on the list, which separates me, I suspect, from my colleagues. But it’s an honest list, even if it doesn’t bring a deserving writer out of obscurity. Freshman year at Harvard is luminous because of these books.

Yours sincerely,
Norman Mailer

Ten Favorite American Novels
U.S.A. John Dos Passos
Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Studs Lonigan James T. Farrell
Look Homeward, Angel Thomas Wolfe
The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
Appointment in Samarra John O’Hara
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
Moby-Dick Herman Melville

  1. 1

    Kazin’s first book, On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American literature between 1890 and 1940, established him as a leading literary critic. His three memoirs— A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978)—are documents of the Jewish immigrant experience and the postwar intellectual scene in New York.

  2. 2

    A short story of Mailer’s from his 1959 book Advertisements for Myself, it is about a sexual encounter between a swaggering young man, Sergius O’Shaughnessy, and a Jewish girl, Denise Gondelman, who has never reached orgasm. Sergius succeeds in bringing Denise to orgasm at the conclusion of the story. In the spring of 1959, Putnam’s, Mailer’s publisher, was considering the story for inclusion in his forthcoming collection Advertisements for Myself. Mailer wrote to fourteen literary critics and scholars (Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, Richard Chase, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and others) asking for their opinion on the story, which Putnam’s publisher, Walter Minton, thought might be considered obscene and cause the book to be banned. Thirteen of the fourteen endorsed it for publication. Mailer’s Harvard professor Robert Gorham Davis declined to do so. The story was ultimately included in Advertisements for Myself, published on November 6, 1959.

  3. 3

    Kazin wrote to Mailer on May 21, 1959, in response to his request for an endorsement of “The Time of Her Time.” Kazin said he would “be glad to supply Putnam’s with a statement of its literary seriousness and power,” and found the story to be “quite wonderful,” although he said Mailer managed “to make sex joyless and even as grim as a surgical operation.” He continued, “But your characters make love with a stop-watch in hand. For this I should make love?” He added: “You are a deeply gifted writer, in some ways the most naturally talented novelist I know; but really, Norman, you take your own obsessions too seriously.”

  4. 4

    Mailer refers here to a long novel that he never finished. Mailer called it “a descendant of Moby-Dick ” and said it could be a thousand pages in length. At the conclusion of Advertisements for Myself, he predicted that “the book will be fired to its fuse by the rumor that once I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within ten years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters.” “The Time of Her Time,” “Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out” (both appearing in Advertisements for Myself ), and a later short story, “The Last Night,” were to be part of this huge novel, in which some of the characters would be recycled (with slight name changes) from The Deer Park (1955). Mailer struggled with the “big novel,” as he called it, for over a decade before abandoning it. He wrote An American Dream (1965) in order to make enough money to be able to complete the “big novel.”

  5. 5

    A friend Mailer met in November 1960 when they were both being held in Bellevue Hospital in New York. Mailer was sent there for observation that month after stabbing his wife Adele with a penknife. Kemp (b. 1938), who grew up in Harlem, served a long prison term for armed robbery and later earned a graduate degree in English at Harvard and became a college professor. Mailer wrote to him when he was in prison and later gave a blurb to his 1972 novel, Eat of Me! I Am the Savior.

  6. 6

    The sixth novel of Saul Bellow (1915–2005), published in 1964, is notable for its extended passages of intellectual discussion, much of it in letters written by its eponym, Moses Herzog.

  7. 7

    Speaking at a March 10, 1965, press conference held in connection with the announcement of the winners of the National Book Award, Mailer said that Bellow “has no new ideas. He is like a dull college professor who has read too many books and has failed to grasp the essence of any of them. I have great admiration for Herzog as a book but I don’t think it’s intellectual.” He went on to say, “There is something Russian about Herzog in its depth of feeling. There are plenty of faults, but my heart was literally burning as I read.”

  8. 8

    Jack Henry Abbott (1944–2002) was a convict with whom Mailer began corresponding in 1977, while he was writing The Executioner’s Song. Abbott wrote eloquently about his perceptions of life in prison; these letters were collected and published, with Mailer’s help, in 1981 in a book entitled In the Belly of the Beast ; excerpts from the letters were published in The New York Review the previous year. Mailer supported Abbott’s bid for parole, which was granted in 1981; Abbott committed a murder six weeks later and was sent back to prison. He killed himself in 2002.

  9. 9

    Mailer is referring to The Executioner’s Song, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. It is an account of the case of Gary Gilmore, who murdered two people in Utah in 1976, and was the first person executed in the US after the reinstatement of the death penalty that year.

  10. 10

    The following appears in “An Afterword” to The Executioner’s Song : “To their assistance must be added the letters of Jack H. Abbott, a convict who has spent much of his life in Western prisons and sent me a series of exceptional letters, well worthy of being published, that delineate the code, the morals, the anguish, the philosophy, the pitfalls, the pride, and the search for inviolability in language I have not encountered in prison literature in recent years.”

  11. 11

    Algerian separatists who terrorized France during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, 1958–1969.

  12. 12

    Abbott later converted to Judaism.

  13. 13

    Mailer’s account is part of the story of the conversion of Russia to Christianity by Vladimir the Great in 988 CE. The Primary Chronicle, a history of ancient Russia, recounts this event.

  14. 14

    Under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, Soncino Press of London published The Babylonian Talmud in thirty-five volumes between 1935 and 1952.

  15. 15

    Perhaps the most important scholar of Jewish mysticism, Scholem (1897–1982) wrote widely on the topic, including Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941).

  16. 16

    A publishing venture organized by Jason Epstein, Robert Silvers, and Epstein’s ex-wife Barbara Epstein (1928–2006), founders of The New York Review, The Reader’s Catalog was an annotated list of the approximately 75,000 titles one might find in the ideal bookstore. Mailer was asked for ten candidates for inclusion.

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