George Szirtes 1948–-
Contemporary British poet, literary critic, and translator.
The following entry provides information from 1979 through 2001 on the life and career of Szirtes.
Szirtes is best known for his ability to tackle multifaceted historical issues with a clarity of vision and deep human sympathy. His unique perspective enables him to delve deep into the realm of painful history while maintaining a unique balance of formal lyric language and vibrant imagery. His enlightening poetry has received nearly universal critical acclaim.
George Szirtes was born in Budapest, Hungary, on November 29, 1948 to Laszlo and Magdalena Szirtes. His father was an engineer and his mother was a photographer. Szirtes emigrated with his family to London, England in 1956 after the Hungarian uprising. Szirtes attended the Harrow School of Art from 1968-69. On July 11, 1970, Szirtes married Clarissa `, who is also an artist, and they had two children, Thomas and Helen. Szirtes went on to earn a B.A. from Leeds College of Art in 1972, and an A.T.C. from the University of London in 1973. Szirtes' held part-time teaching jobs until 1975, when he became head of art at the Hitchin Girls' School, where he remained until 1980. He was the director of art and history of art at St. Christopher School in Letchworth, England from 1980-89. In 1989, he divided his time between St. Christopher School and the Norfolk Institute of Art and Design, where he became a senior lecturer in poetry in 1991. In addition, he has worked as a freelance writer and translator since 1987. Szirtes began publishing his poetry in 1972, though he did not receive a great deal of critical acclaim until 1979's The Slant Door, which won him a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize from Faber & Faber Ltd./Arts Council in 1980. Among other accolades, Szirtes was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982. He subsequently won an Arts Council fellowship in 1984. His work was listed among the Poetry Book Society choices and recommendations in 1984, 1986 and 1988, he was granted a British Council fellowship in 1985, he received the Cholmondely Prize for Poetry in 1987, and he held the post of Writer in Residence at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2000. A return trip to Hungary in 1984 renewed Szirtes' interest in his native country and inspired him to begin translating into English the works of contemporary Hungarian poets. His first translation, Imre Madách's The Tragedy of Man, was published in 1989. He has since translated nine more volumes of poetry Hungarian poets, as well as anthologies of poets past and present. His translations won the Dery prize for translation in 1991 and the Gold Star of the Hungarian Republic in the same year. In addition, he won a European Poetry Translation Prize in 1995 for his translation of Zsuzsa Rakovszky's New Life (1994). Szirtes' works appear regularly in national and international anthologies. His poetry has also been translated into several other European languages. A few of his poems appear in anthologies aimed at children. He currently resides in England and is a member of International PEN, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Szirtes published his first book of poetry, Poems, in 1972. But it wasn’t until he published The Slant Door in 1979, which was hailed as a master work, that Szirtes earned critical acclaim and garnering him international attention for the first time. Szirtes continued to publish his poetry and won more critical acclaim with the publication of The Photographer in Winter (1986), Metro (1988), and Bridge Passages (1991). His tour de force, Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape, published in 1998, cemented his reputation as a master of complex poetic forms. More recent works, such as The Budapest File (2000) and An English Apocalypse (2001), have only added to his reputation. In addition to his own poetry, Szirtes has worked tirelessly to translate the work of contemporary Hungarian poets into English. He translated and co-edited an anthology, The Colonnade of Teeth: Twentieth Century Hungarian Poetry, published in 1996, which has also received praise from critics all over the globe.
George Szirtes started publishing his poetry in 1972, but his poetry went largely ignored in literary circles until the publication of The Slant Door. The critical reception this volume received was unusual for a poet as little known as Szirtes was at that time. Subsequent works were received with similar accolades, though critics are often divided when discussing Szirtes' writing style. Some offer awed praise for his use of iambic pentameter, his sonnets, and complicated structures that pull the final lines from 13 different stanzas and includes them in a final summary sonnet at the end of a chapter of verse. Others complain about his ornate and stilted use of language. Alan Brownjohn critiques, in a review ofThe Slant Door in Encounter, the poet's “habits of using the painter's eye for intriguing detail to get poems off the ground and employing a rather garish surrealist fantasy.” Also writing in Encounter, Alan Jenkins praises Szirtes’ poetry for its “strange and dangerous benedictions, and for its subtle paradoxes and contradictions...” There seems to be little middle ground in this debate—critics either love the structure and complexity of his formal style or they declaim it as a weak crutch.
The Iron Clouds 1975
A Mandeville Troika [with Neil Power and Peter Scupham] 1977
An Illustrated Alphabet 1978
Poetry Introduction 4 [with others] 1978
At the Sink 1978
Silver Age 1979
The Slant Door 1979
Sermon on a Ship 1980
Homage to Cheval 1981
November and May 1981
The Kissing Place 1982
Short Wave 1984
The Photographer in Winter 1986
Bridge Passages 1991
Blind Field 1994
Selected Poems 1996
Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape 1998
The Budapest File 2000
An English Apocalypse 2001
A Starwheel Portfolio, The Transparent Room, Strict Seasons, Spring Offensive, Cloud Station, States of Undress [editor, 6 vols.] (verse and etching portfolios) 1978-84
Imre Madách: The Tragedy of Man [translator] (play) 1989
Sándor Csóri: Barbarian Prayer [translator] (poetry) 1989
István Vas: Through the...
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SOURCE: Palmer, William. “A New Slant.” Poetry Review 70, no. 3 (December 1980): 68-70.
[In the following review, Palmer writes favorably about The Slant Door.]
George Szirtes has achieved in The Slant Door that rare thing—a book that cannot be wrapped in a five hundred word review and dropped to oblivion. It is one of the best first books of poetry to be published in the past few years, that is, if we judge by successful poems and not by promise or critically adduced intentions.
This, of course, is to take the book as a whole, and in an unusually meaty book, with poems crowded together on the page, there is a fair amount of XXth century poetic stock:
Sunlight laces the book The dying light shudders The trees fling their doily patterns high
The last line is from one of those of poems about the pathos of old age that now seem obligatory in any young poet's book.
But there is also this:
Look, it has snowed in the light And the roads are bright as skin Lit by the moon: the snow is moonlight And there will be no morning ever again, We shall live in white like brides Never stirring, nor shall light be over To discover the bed unmade or the windows thrown wide Or the street stopped in its course like a river.
This may appear slight at first, and this is the whole poem, but it is a whole poem and...
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SOURCE: Jenkins, Alan. “A Barbarous Eloquence.” Encounter 59, no. 2 (August 1982): 55-61.
[In the following essay, Jenkins discusses Szirtes's poetic style.]
The poems contained in George Szirtes's November and May are largely concerned with propitiating the grimmer or less manageable gods and with trying to wrest a quirky, by no means comforting morality—in both senses—from the already quirky occurrences of the everyday and the domestic. The epigraph from Mac-Neice's “Snow” (“There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses”) suggests that Szirtes has sensed the limitations of meticulousness, starkness, cleanliness, a strong visual quality, unblurred impressions, confidence and clarity—the terms in which his previous volume was praised—and begun instead to look out for the “mundane apparition,” the unattended moment of mystery or menace; to look out, too, for the words and rhythms that will evoke this malady of the quotidian with oblique forcefulness, deadened, remote decorum of manner:
Forms appear suddenly in mirrors and photographs, We do not think however that they are entirely at home. At night the doors are locked. We lock them now.
The rhythms in some poems here may owe something to MacNeice; this numbed serenity of tone while giving utterance to a disturbing and discomfiting vision, and the tendency to turn the arresting...
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Sight Lines.” New Statesman 107 (13 January 1984): 24-5.
[In the following essay, Lucas writes about Szirtes's word choice and use of rhythm.]
There is more than a trace of Geoffrey Grigson in the manner of George Szirtes' relish for the observable world. Describing a bullfinch perched on a lilac flower, he says that the bird's weight ‘bothered the lilac, she bent / a little, her small tent / of pleasure collapsing / inward with the swaying’. Although those lines could never be mistaken for Grigson, the weighting and positioning of rhyme and phrase owe something to his example. In Short Wave, notation becomes poetry: ‘Tired, you slumped into the chair / and shade and water burned a stain / across the colour of your coat.’ That comes from a poem called ‘Against Dullness’, whose sentiment Grigson would certainly echo. But the lines also make plain Szirtes' very individual gifts. Yes, he takes a painter's delight in registering surfaces, but even when he is at his most ‘visual’ there is about his work a sense of imagined, guessed-at worlds, which is radically different from Grigson's delimited precisions.
‘Morning in the Square’ begins with a perception that has you muttering about De Chirico:
The square is empty in the early sunlight. What is it waiting for? It seems to lack animation—a delivery van turns the corner...
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SOURCE: Motion, Andrew. “Too True.” Poetry Review 74, no. 1 (April 1984): 64.
[In the following review, Motion discusses the love poetry of Szirtes.]
Once in a while, or maybe only once in a lifetime, most of us want to write love poems. And most of us, especially if the love we want to write about is happy, find it dismayingly difficult. Why? The most obvious reason—or at least the most commonly given, and the one made famous by Larkin—is that ‘happiness writes white’. It's an appealing excuse for the elegiac English sensibility. But behind it lies a complicated question about audience. It's usual for poets to claim that their relationship with their readership, no matter what its size, is always one to one—the point being that poetry is intimate and, in John Stuart Mill's word, ‘overheard’; it's a form of address to which every breast returns its own unique echo. With love poetry, though, the intimacy is of an especially intense sort. There is usually one particular person (the subject) to please, and usually a singularly private world of reference, significance and innuendo surrounding the publicised circumstances of the poem on the page. Poets worth their salt, of course, realise this potential for exclusivity, and put themselves out to ensure a sufficient degree of generality. But in creating that generality, how can they avoid mangling the private affections which were the...
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “A Rose for the Betrayed World.” New Statesman 1, no. 12 (26 August 1988): 38.
[In the following review, Lucas looks at the political nature of poems in Szirtes's collection Metro.]
At the end of “Five Men”, a poem which records with level, factual honesty the assassination of political dissidents (or so one assumes them to be), Zbigniew Herbert remarks that a poet can also “once again / in dead earnest / offer to the betrayed world / a rose.” He does not intend to mock such earnestness. But then what is the subject for poetry? Or rather, is it possible to find a procedure—a tone, a style, a formal manner—that makes possible the negotiation of subject-matter might seem to lie beyond the possibilities that poetry can encompass.
In his new book, George Szirtes is engaged with these issues, not because he debates them but because they are prompted by what he chooses, or feels himself compelled, to write about. Thus, in “A Card Skull in Atlantis”, Szirtes moves from the paper models of a shop dealing in artists' materials, through a mention of a crystal skull in the British Museum, to
skulls like paper, piled high in ditches, two sets of grandparents, an uncle or two, … cousins boarding trains, securely labelled. and people watching one another from windows. Under the eyes their bones flare for a minute, collapse to powder on...
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SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Sssnnnwhuffffll.” London Review of Books 11, no. 2 (19 January 1989): 14-5.
[In the following essay, Ford discusses the themes of Szirtes's book Metro.]
George Szirtes is a less frolicsome poet than Morgan, and his new volume, Metro, has him dealing with particularly grim subject-matter. The book's long title poem is set in the Hungary of 1944-45. The country has been overrun by fascist forces, and Hungarian Jews, including the poet's own mother, are being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The poem's narrative cuts between his own childhood memories of Hungary and the fates of various branches of the Szirtes family, but mainly concerns his mother's love for a disdainful older brother, lost during the war, her courtship, and the circumstances surrounding her arrest. In contrast with Carson's Belfast, wartime Budapest is presented by Szirtes in lurid, mythical terms. The poem's city is more a generalised European urban chaos, through which the poet's mother leads him in Dantesque fashion:
I see a voice, the greyest of grey shadows. Lead me, psychopompos, through my found City, down into the Underground.
‘Metro’ is written in fluent rhyming stanzas that carry the story forward with sinuous verve. Szirtes's language is a blend of the aphoristic and the keenly visualised, which locates the real events described at an odd sort of...
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SOURCE: Szirtes, George. “Being Remade As an English Poet.” New Hungarian Quarterly 30, no. 113 (spring 1989): 149-59.
[In the following essay, Szirtes writes about his youth and writing poetry in a new language.]
At the age of twenty-seven I felt “I needed to be remade as an English poet.” It was of course a form of groping in the dark. What does it mean to be remade? If I ask myself this question now I am immediately led back into that odd twilight world in which the past becomes an unwitting liar, the clear conclusions that spring from it fade like mirages, and even the apparent certainties of what has come to be begin to lose their definition. Now I travel regularly to Hungary, have good friends there, read Hungarian poetry (still with some, though decreasing, difficulty), write about Hungary, and am less concerned about having to be remade as an Englishman. My language is naturally English—I have (I tell myself) written five books of English poems to prove it—and even though the last two books have, in curious ways, fed on Hungary, nobody has suggested that I have become something other than I was in earlier books. It is true that in one or two places I have been billed as a ‘Hungarian poet’ and that one of the terms in which I am sometimes praised is as an introducer of foreign flavours into English verse, but the first of these I have put down to ignorance or possibly an...
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SOURCE: Romer, Stephen. “Events through Glass.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4611 (16 August 1991): 24.
[In the following review, Romer discusses the emotions found in the poetry of Szirtes's Bridge Passages.]
Geòrge Szirtes's new book carries the dedication “For my friends in Hungary”, which puts us instantly in the picture, given that most of the poems were composed in Hungary itself during the momentous months of 1989-90. To outsiders, the demise of the Communist regime there was perhaps less spectacular, and in a sense less public, than the similar events in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and especially Romania. As if in keeping with our more muffled perception of Hungary, the poems in Bridge Passages are themselves remarkably oblique.
One hesitates to use a phrase like “distanced appraisals” in describing them, because so many of them are intimate, or intimiste in their precise evocation of interiors, the claustrophobic flats of urban Central Europe; in general they eschew, apart from the deliberately wooden “Two Rondeaus”, direct reportage of, say, the crowds in city squares that remain the abiding image of those times. At the same time they contrive to be austerely impersonal. It makes for a curious tonal mix, in which precise description is suddenly blurred by a general, often moralized reflection. Szirtes's very impressive long poem “Metro”, in his...
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SOURCE: Smith, Stan. “Imagining the Suburbs.” London Review of Books 14, no. 1 (9 January 1992): 22-3.
[In the following review, Smith discusses the imagery in Szirtes's book Bridge Passages.]
Whole systems of thought have been founded on the French language's inability to distinguish differing from deferring. Perhaps Napoleon is to blame (‘Not tonight, Josephine’). In Britain, we do things differently. Whereas Baudelaire's vrai voyageur preferred travelling joyfully to the letdowns of arrival—in modern terms, couldn't stop playing with his signifier—Forster's Mrs Moore remains convinced that there is a real India to make her passage to, Conrad's Marlow knows there's a heart of darkness worth all the tourist's little tribulations. From Wordsworth's daffodils to Hughes's brutal snowdrops, objects may flash upon the inward eye of English verse, but they are also carried alive into the heart by passion. Even that vice Anglais, nostalgia, Tennyson's passion of the past, reinstates the metaphysics of presence, dealing not in absences but in the felt presence of loss: the souvenir snapshots are the real thing. At the end of the longest journey, where Angels do not fear to tread, waits a room with a view, and it's usually a room of one's own not far from Howards End. The Englishman's referent is his castle.
In this tradition, contemporary English poetry seems...
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SOURCE: Murray, Nicholas. “Retro to the Metro.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4862 (7 June 1996): 26.
[In the following review, Murray examines Szirtes's selections for his book Selected Poems. 1976-1996.]
“I'm merely a reporter whose truth lies / in diction clear as water”, declares the narrator of “Street Entertainment”, a poem from Bridge Passages (1991), the sixth of the seven collections raided for this impressively consistent and accomplished Selected Poems: 1976-1996. George Szirtes has always cast a cool eye on the human and the physical landscapes—often reading one in terms of the other—and is reluctant to draw too many conclusions from his attentively realized word-pictures. An early poem, “Background Noises”, enjoins us to “hold off the intelligence” and attend to “solid, untearful matter”. Another warns garden birds: “I will not make you metaphors just yet.” But for all the restraint, the emphasis on clear seeing rather than poetizing, Szirtes's world is nothing if not a paysage moralisé underscored by a serious and scrupulous intelligence, whose respect for objects and the way they look and feel is simply another facet of a humane sensibility. These poems involve a searching by the imagination into the crevices of things, a catching at the evanescent (however precise and concrete the language deployed in the pursuit), a worrying at the...
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SOURCE: O'Reilly, Caitriona. “Possibilities of Vision.” Poetry Nation Review 25, no. 4 (March-April 1999): 79-80.
[In the following essay, O'Reilly discusses the technical merit of Szirtes's poetry in his book Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape.]
Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape is Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes's most recent collection. The volume is concerned with the poet's memories of his family and early childhood in Eastern Europe, and in an England overshadowed by deprivation and war. This translates symbolically into a poetry which is obsessed by effacement and decay. ‘Four Villonesques on Desire’ comprise a witty meditation on the subject, while Szirtes's sketches of contemporary urban life are particularly striking, with virtuoso single-sentence poems like ‘Tinseltown’ and ‘The First, Second, Third and Fourth Circles’ conveying the speed, impermanence and consequent exhaustion of city living. A particularly enjoyable feature of Szirtes's varied technique is his use of a single object to unleash a chain of associated images. Section 2 sees the poet using variations of colour as a spur to his process of recall and connection, much as a painter would. This is the method of memory itself, about which Szirtes has much to say. There is an uneasy consciousness of memory's unreliability, and a mistrust of its formal realization. The extreme verbal...
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SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Tensions.” Georgia Review 53, no. 2 (summer 1999): 368-84.
[In the following essay, Kitchen explores the father-son relationships described in Szirtes's poetry volume Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape.]
Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape by George Szirtes is one of the most elegantly formal books I've read in recent years. Szirtes is a master of iambic pentameter, of the sonnet in particular, and seems to have found ways to make English rhymes sound new. One way he does this is through innovative use of enjambment; the stanzas unfold seamlessly while the intricacy of the pattern establishes itself, as in the second section of “Busby Berkeley in the Soviet Union”:
This music is in your blood, slithering through your arteries. It's no longer 1934 but whatever you want. Call it today if it pleases you. You're watching tv, some series about hospitals or cops, an investigator on the scent or a plaintiff
in a court case of a documentary about fish, it doesn't matter what kind of tripe you fancy, you get it all, good quality. So you think you are safe, but under the rubbish it raises its head. Sweet music. Suddenly you wipe your face. Electricity
courses through you, or is it nostalgia?
The rhymes here, almost invisible (though not inaudible), constitute the poet's “net” or...
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SOURCE: Szirtes, George with András Gerevich. “Hungarian Roots, English Traditions.” Hungarian Quarterly 42, no. 164 (winter 2001): 100-06.
[In the following interview, Szirtes and Gerevich discuss Szirtes's life and work.]
George Szirtes, born in Budapest in 1948, left Hungary with his family as a child in 1956 and settled in England. So far he has published 13 volumes of poetry, the most recent of which are The Budapest File, Bloodaxe/Corvina, 2000, a collection of his poems on Hungarian topics, and An English Apocalypse, Bloodaxe, 2001. He has received numerous prestigious British awards, including the Faber Prize and the Cholmondeley Award. He returned to Hungary for the first time in 1984 and has come back every year since then. He has translated many literary works into English, amongst others The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, selections from the poems of István Vas, Ottó Orbán, Sándor Csóri and Zsuzsa Rakovszky, and novels by Dezso Kosztolányi, Gyula Krúdy and László Krasznahorkai. The British Council chose one of his poems for an international poetry translation competition which attracted 118 entries from Hungarians. The selected Hungarian translators were invited to attend a seminar by Lake Balaton.
[Gerevich]: You lived in Hungary until you were eight years old, then, with your family, you found a new home in England. What was it like...
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SOURCE: Sutherland-Smith, James. “In and Out of Focus.” Poetry Nation Review 28, no. 1 (September-October 2001): 68-9.
[In the following review, Sutherland-Smith discusses Szirtes's life in relation to his book The Budapest File.]
George Szirtes so far has enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet and translator with the occasional acerbic review to add bite. His change of English publisher has resulted in a Collected poems about Budapest and Central Europe. The book is dedicated to the memory of his mother and to his father both of whom emerge as remarkable presences in the book, as does the poet himself, rather more so than the city of Budapest which remains curiously elusive, coming and going in and out of focus from poem to poem. ‘The First, Second, Third and Fourth Circles’ uses a Dantean trope to give Budapest an infernal character, but this is not helped by the pseudo-pyrotechnics of the first part which consists of a thirty-five line single sentence made up of a string of relative clauses. There is an absence of the sense of the two cities of Buda and Pest divided by the river. Perhaps such simple contrasts are beneath Szirtes' notice.
Szirtes' introductory essay briefly describes his family's escape from Hungary in 1956, his learning of English and his early attempts to write at art college in Leeds under the mentorship of the Group poet, Martin Bell. It seems...
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SOURCE: Hopkin, James. “Wrestling with Englishness.” Guardian (27 October 2001): 11.
[In the following essay, Hopkin writes about Szirtes's transition from being Hungarian to being English.]
’Xenophobia is not what it used to be,” says Anglo-Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes, and he should know. Ever since he walked across the Austrian border as an eight-year-old refugee in 1956, Szirtes has lived the life of a hyphenated being, never quite belonging to his adopted country, England, and never quite leaving behind his native Hungary.
When he began writing in his late teens, he realised that the struggle for identity was located in language itself. “I was thinking very hard of becoming an English writer,” he says, “and I had to work my way out from the written word to the spoken.” Immersing himself in the English canon, he embarked on “a search for a capacious language” that could accommodate his two-fold existence. “We arrived as heroes from the cold war. We were the brave Hungarians who tried to fight the Russians; children pointing guns, throwing Molotov cocktails.”
In volumes of poetry such as The Budapest File, Szirtes sets this Hungarian legacy against the confusions of an immigrant life. “As a refugee,” he says, “you are almost classless. My father's side were factory workers. On my mother's side there is a...
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Marshall, Alan. “Forgive this Garrulousness.” Daily Telegraph (16 December 2000): 1.
Critiques Szirtes's writing style.
Murray Davis, Robert. Review of The Budapest File. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 342.
Gives a quick review of Szirtes's book The Budapest File.
Additional coverage of Szirtes' life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 109; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 61, 117; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 46; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; and Literature Resource Center.
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