John Collier Collier, John (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Collier 1901-1980

English novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter.

A versatile writer who is best remembered for his fantastic plots, Collier is almost equally famous in the mystery genre. His short story collection Fancies and Goodnights (1951) was selected for the “Queen's Quorum,” Ellery Queen's list of outstanding mystery collections. The wit, irony, and imagination in Collier's novels and stories is often compared to that of such writers as Saki, Ambrose Bierce, and Roald Dahl.

Biographical Information

Collier was born in London in 1901 to John George and Emily Noyes Collier. After kindergarten, Collier was educated privately. He began his writing career as a poet and was first published in 1920 at the age of nineteen. His focus later shifted to writing novels and short stories. His earliest novel, His Monkey Wife; or, Married to a Chimp, was published in 1930, followed a year later by his short story collection Epistle to a Friend. During the early 1930s Collier's fiction earned him a reputation for whimsy and caustic wit that carried across the Atlantic and helped land him a contract, in 1935, to write screenplays for RKO Pictures. His most famous Hollywood accomplishment was writing the storyline for the classic film The African Queen, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. During the next thirty years Collier continued writing novels and short stories, developed many screenplays, and was active in television. He died of a stroke in Pacific Palisades, California, in 1980.

Major Works

Collier's first novel, His Monkey Wife; or, Married to a Chimp, depicts a man who visits Africa, returns with a chimpanzee named Emily, and falls in love with her, eventually marrying her and moving back to Africa. While some readers and critics were shocked by Collier's portrayal of the interspecies love affair, others recognized in it Collier's talents for social criticism and satire, and the novel experienced great success. Collier's subsequent novels, Tom's A-Cold (1933) and Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart (1934), were less successful. While Collier's writing was always considered nearly perfect, critics found that this, combined with his wit and satire, were not enough to sustain novel-length fiction. Collier's short fiction, however, was consistently well received. His fantasy stories contain wit, irony, and creative plots that provide insight into human nature. One example, “Evening Primrose,” is the story of a young poet who seeks sanctuary from the harshness of society. He plans to live in a large department store in seclusion but discovers that at night, after the doors close, the mannequins come to life. He finds their society as repressive, materialistic, and uncompromising as that of the real world. In another tale, “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” a boy's imaginary friend comes to life to exact revenge on the boy's cruel and overbearing father. Collier's mysteries contain sophisticated characters who are often undone by their own wrongdoings and clever plots with ironic and abrupt endings. In “Another American Tragedy” a young man plans to murder and then impersonate his wealthy uncle in order to change the old man's will in his favor. As part of the scheme he has his teeth removed, but his real hardship begins for him when the family physician, who is currently the old man's heir, arrives on the scene with secret knowledge of the nephew's intent. Hints of misogyny also appear throughout the Collier's work, particularly in his mysteries. His tales of murder often portray troubled marriages in which husbands are motivated to kill their nagging or unfaithful wives and then hide the bodies in the basement. “De Mortuis,” one of Collier's most famous and frequently anthologized stories from Fancies and Goodnights, features a New York doctor married to a woman whom his friends know to be unfaithful. When they see the doctor patching his basement floor they assume that he has buried her. They pledge their loyalty to him and then share tales of the wife's escapades while, unbeknownst to them, the wife is actually returning home. In 1973 Collier published Milton's Paradise Lost: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind, in which he recast and updated John Milton's famous epic poem into a screenplay format. Whether or not Collier intended the work to ever be filmed remains unknown. Critics praised Collier's efforts, although some noted that Milton's original depiction of his Genesis characters was lost amid Collier's attempts to further romanticize the story.

Critical Reception

Collier was very popular in the United States, where his most memorable literary pieces were collected in The John Collier Reader in 1972. Like many writers of fantastic fiction, Collier was largely ignored by scholars but received high praise from the public. Critics often noted that Collier had a rare talent for writing perfectly crafted, highly stylized sentences. Marjorie Farber wrote in a review of The Touch of Nutmeg, (1943) “Collier handles clichés with the deft conviction of a poet.” Many of his stories adapted for film and television—in some cases by accomplished directors such as Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock—are also celebrated by viewing audiences. Commenting on Collier, Anthony Burgess stated, “Though not a writer of the very first rank, he possessed considerable literary skill and a rare capacity to entertain. … He needs to be rediscovered.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

His Monkey Wife; or, Married to a Chimp (novel) 1930

Epistle to a Friend (short stories) 1931

Gemini: Poems (poetry) 1931

No Traveller Returns (short stories) 1931

The Scandal and Credulities of John Aubrey (nonfiction) 1931

Green Thoughts (short stories) 1932

Just the Other Day: An Informal History of Great Britain Since the War (history) 1932

Tom's A-Cold (novel) 1933; also published as Full Circle: A Tale, 1933

Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart (novel) 1934

The Devil and All (short stories) 1934

Variation on a Theme (short stories) 1935

Witch's Money (short stories) 1940

Presenting Moonshine: Stories (short stories) 1941

The Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories (short stories) 1943

Fancies and Goodnights (short stories) 1951

Pictures in the Fire (short stories) 1958

The John Collier Reader (short stories and novels) 1972

Milton's Paradise Lost: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind (screenplay) 1973

Josiah Titzell (review date 5 April 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Titzell, Josiah. “An Exciting First Novel.” New York Herald Tribune Books (5 April 1931): 6.

[In the following review, Titzell notes that His Monkey Wife is “original” and “extraordinary.”]

His Monkey Wife is a book with which to choose your friends. Either they will like it tremendously or they will not be able to see it at all, but in either case they will feel strongly and you can accept or reject them depending on whether or not their reactions square with yours. I shall choose mine among those who share my excitement for this extraordinary first novel.

It is a dangerous business if you want people to like this book to try to tell them what it is about. Described it can seem to have a quantity of things in it that are not actually there, and similarly it is impossible to convey the subtle wit which makes you laugh aloud, the beauty and the penetrating satire which blend so perfectly into its brilliance.

It is the story of Emily, a chimpanzee, who has been adopted into the house of Mr. Alfred fatigay in Boboma, the Upper Congo. Mr. Fatigay is a mildly idealistic schoolteacher whose duty it is to teach the pickaninnies, and since Emily has already begun to show that devotion which springs from her primitive emotions, she sits quietly in the back of the classroom, closely following every word of her lord and master. In a short time...

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Dudley Carew (review date 5 May 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carew, Dudley. “New Novels.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1514 (5 May 1931): 96.

[In the following review, Carew praises Collier's wit and satire in His Monkey Wife, but notes that the novel will be intensely disliked by some readers.]

The title of Mr. John Collier's first novel, His Monkey Wife or Married to a Chimp, suggests a somewhat unpleasing variation on a zoological theme made popular by Mr. David Garnett in his “Lady into Fox.” Actually, however, the relationship between the two books is slight to the point of disappearance, for the fact that Emily happened to be a chimpanzee was the least important thing about that noble and...

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Herschel Brickell (review date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brickell, Herschel. “A Variety of Fiction.” The North American Review 231 (1931): 574.

[In the following review, Brickell comments on Collier's satire and humor in His Monkey Wife.]

One of the most engaging of recent novels is an English satire by John Collier and called His Monkey Wife or Married to a Chimp. In brief, it is the story of the return from Africa to England of a young Englishman. His companion is a lady chimpanzee named Emily. Once at home, he falls in love with a pretty girl, but after many difficulties decides to marry Emily and return to Africa. This is a highly entertaining piece of fiction, and also a sharp and amusing comment upon...

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Basil Bunting (review date August 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bunting, Basil. “Valentine and Orson.” Poetry 40, no. 5 (August 1932): 293-95.

[In the following review, Bunting regards Gemini as a “sizeable achievement” despite its affectations.]

Edith Sitwell says: “A writer to whom the gentle and insipid word ‘talent’ cannot be applied, but a greater word of whose use we are, as a rule, afraid.” In case you inquire for Miss Sitwell's credentials, here they are: “The only modern poet who is completely successful in verse seems to me to be Miss Edith Sitwell”: by John Collier, preface to Gemini. These poems have also been awarded two valuable prizes, so they come well recommended. Finally,...

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Rolfe Scott-Thomas (review date 20 October 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scott-Thomas, Rolfe. “Informal History.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1603 (20 October 1932): 760.

[In the following review, Scott-Thomas finds Just the Other Day to be lacking in the appropriate gravity and perspective.]

Mr. John Collier and Mr. Iain Lang, the authors of Just the Other Day—an “Informal History of Great Britain Since the War,” as the sub-title runs—acknowledge their indebtedness for their main idea to Mr. F. L. Allen, who treated the post-War years in America in his book Only Yesterday. But an earlier and better example of this kind of writing is to be found in Mr. R. H. Gretton's Modern History of the...

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New Statesman and Nation (review date 12 November 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Since the War.” New Statesman and Nation 4, no. 90 (12 November 1932): 599-600.

[In the following review, the critic finds Just the Other Day to be well written and conceived but overly didactic in its social commentary.]

There is a peculiarly revolting passage in the adventures of Gulliver in Brobdingnag where Swift describes the impression conveyed to his hero by a sojourn in the private apartments of some ladies of the court. Magnified out of all friendly perspective these ladies, engaged on their toilets, are revealed as loathsome, hideous monsters. Allowing for twentieth century restraint, Gulliver's point of view on this occasion is that...

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The Spectator (review date 18 November 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Outmoded Cavalcade.” The Spectator 149, no. 5447 (18 November 1932): 714.

[In the following review, the critic finds Just the Other Day overly casual in places but overall informative and enjoyable.]

The authors of Just the Other Day have based their work upon Mr. F. L. Allen's survey of the post-War years in America entitled Only Yesterday. It was a happy idea to apply a similar technique to recent English history, and the collaboration of Mr. Collier and Mr. Lang has been exceedingly fortunate. The material cannot have been easy to select and compress, but they have done wonders. Dealing first of all with the immediate aftermath of...

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David Garnett (review date 8 April 1933)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garnett, David. “Current Literature.” New Statesman and Nation 50, no. III (8 April 1933): 448.

[In the following review, Garnett considers Tom's A-Cold a disappointing follow-up to Collier's earlier works.]

When I had read a few pages of Tom's A-Cold, by John Collier, I thought that the author of that highly original book His Monkey Wife had given us another After London. For Mr. Collier has taken the alarmists, who predict the collapse of civilisation, at their word and has drawn England in the nineteen nineties when, after wars, plagues, and famines have done their worst, what is left is almost exactly like what Jefferies...

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Iris Barry (review date 7 May 1933)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barry, Iris. “A Tomorrow Grown out of Today's Fears.” New York Herald Tribune Books (7 May 1933): 6.

[In the following review, Barry considers Full Circle to be a provocative book.]

This is no novel about the future, in the ordinary sense of that phrase. It is not compounded of Wellsian characters or situations, but of men like our neighbors, like Francis Bacon or General Marbot, in situations such as men have faced before. Suppose all is lost, since the economic pundits tell us all may so easily be lost, and civilization as we know it shattered to chaos, to the dark ages and worse again, to beyond the bronze age if you will—what then? Annihilate...

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John Cournos (review date 28 June 1933)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cournos, John. “An Old, Old Story.” The Nation 136, no. 3547 (28 June 1933): 732-33.

[In the following review, Cournos regrets that Collier has wasted his talents writing Full Circle.]

It will be remembered that in the last two pages of Penguin Island Anatole France furnishes us with a sketchy picture of the day when civilization will have run its course, and men, “barbarians” once more, will have begun to build a new civilization not so different from the old. John Collier takes up the theme in this his second novel and elaborates it in nearly three hundred pages. Only it is not France but England which is the author's focal point—England in...

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Wyndham Lewis (review date 8 June 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lewis, Wyndham. “Demos Defied.” The Spectator 152, no. 5528 (8 June 1934): 892.

[In the following review, Lewis finds that Defy the Foul Fiend begins on a weak note but soon becomes an accomplished work.]

The diabolical presence who is defied in this book is the demon called Demos. Democracy—as is today on all hands and increasingly the case—is compelled to assume the horn and hoof. And the colours that are sported by this newest hero are the “Tory” colours—though that, I venture to believe, is a mistaken tag, as his politics, as they are revealed to us in partly humorous, partly impassioned scenes, of very great vivacity, are much...

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William Rose Benét (review date 4 August 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benét, William Rose. “The Misadventures of Young Lovers.” Saturday Review of Literature 11, no. 3 (4 August 1934): 33.

[In the following review, Benét finds Defy the Foul Fiend a disappointment after the success of His Monkey Wife.]

There are two books for which everyone should evermore praise John Collier. One is the novel, His Monkey Wife, which appeared a few years ago, and the second his editing of what he has called The Scandal and Credulities of John Aubrey. In their several ways I do not know which I like better; but I do know that I like both passing well.

Therefore when I opened a new novel by him with such...

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The Nation (review date 8 August 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shorter Notices.” The Nation 139, No. 3605 (8 August 1934): 168.

[In the following review, the critic declares that Defy the Foul Fiend will fail to gain a wide readership despite its attributes.]

These two novels, [Defy the Foul Fiend, and Brian Guy, by Benjamin Appel] so completely different in temper and style, are in many respects the same story. They each describe a gifted young man who would rather do anything than earn what is described by old-fashioned persons as an honest living; the two heroes are both agreeable wastrels, in short, with no regard for their elders and betters and with an irresistible attraction for charming...

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Fanny Butcher (review date 22 September 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butcher, Fanny. “Collier Writes with Brilliance in New Novel.” Chicago Daily Tribune XCIII, no. 228 (22 September 1934): 15.

[In the following review, Butcher offers high praise for Defy the Foul Fiend despite Collier's lack of development of his protagonist.]

John Collier, whose His Monkey Wife was one of those lodes of pure brilliance which is rarely found in the good mines of English literature, and upon whom the eyes of those who would like to feel themselves his peers have been turned with eagerness, recently offered us Defy the Foul Fiend, which proves—to this reviewer, at least—one of the most difficult of books to judge....

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C. J. Eustace (review date September 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eustace, C. J. “Philanderer's Progress.” Canadian Forum 14, no. 168 (September 1934): 488.

[In the following review, Eustace offers a negative assessment of Defy the Foul Fiend but admits that Collier's writing evidences genius.]

The writer must confess his abysmal ignorance! Before this book he had never heard of Mr. John Collier. Apparently Mr. Collier has published two other books, both of them highly praised by the reviewers in England. The names of these novels are His Monkey Wife and Tom's A-Cold. We are assured, by the reviewers of both these works, that the writer of them is a man of genius. And yet!

In Defy...

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Geoffrey West (review date 12 December 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: West, Geoffrey. “New Novels.” Times Literary Supplement no. 1717 (12 December 1934): 920.

[In the following review, West finds the stories in The Devil and All to be well written but shallow.]

Mr. John Collier's The Devil and All reveals him as master of the art of saying, with consummate skill, almost exactly nothing at all. These six short stories are a demonstration of accomplishment and dexterity to be compared to the performances of a champion trick skater. His prose glides and turns, pauses and pirouettes, leaps and wheels, and in general does the nicest tricks with unfailing coolness and precision. Seldom is even a comma misplaced, and...

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Ben Ray Redman (review date 1 February 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Redman, Ben Ray. “Imagination at Large.” Saturday Review of Literature 23, no. 15 (1 February 1941): 5.

[In the following review, Redman praises Collier's imaginative plots in the stories in Presenting Moonshine.]

This latest presentation of John Collier's own, particular, and inimitable brand of literary moonshine contains the story, “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” which recently disturbed and baffled the less imaginative readers of The Atlantic. It contains other tales, among its twenty-four, that would not only baffle and disturb but horrify them. By these same tales, more imaginative readers will be delighted, for almost every one of the double-dozen...

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Otis Ferguson (review date 3 February 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Otis. “Collected Waxworks.” New Republic 104, no. 1366 (3 February 1941): 155.

[In the following review, Ferguson finds the stories in Presenting Moonshine enjoyable but superficial.]

John Collier in his short stories has opened up a vein of fiction that comes strangely in this time. All his pieces [in Presenting Moonshine] are in this same manner—which is not, incidentally, the more humane and engaging manner of the two novels: His Monkey Wife and Defy the Foul Fiend. They are matter-of-fact in tone, smoothly joined in the writing, and deal in one way or another with the supernatural. I don't like them. They are...

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Paul Theroux (essay date 26 November 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Theroux, Paul. “Very Wayward Miniatures.” Washington Post Book World (26 November 1972): 4.

[In the following essay, Theroux discusses Collier's place in literary tradition.]

The critical reaction was mixed in 1931 when John Collier's first novel, His Monkey Wife; or, Married to a Chimp, was published by Appleton. Books called it “an extraordinary first novel” and The Boston Evening Transcript said it was “unique and thoroughly entertaining satire.” The Nation regretted that it was not so deft as David Garnett's Lady Into Fox; The New Republic said there was in it “less humor than artifice” and The...

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New Republic (review date 9 December 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Brief.” New Republic 167, no. 22 (9 December 1972): 33-34.

[In the following review, the critic examines the works included in The John Collier Reader, concluding that much of Collier's canon is charming but light reading.]

We may still believe in God—our money and our pledge of allegiance say we do—but few nowadays believe in Satan. True, we can muster up a pharisaical contempt for antisocial behavior; we can generate a proper Republican shudder at breaches of law'n'order; and of course any sexual naughtiness still provides a spasm of titillation or moral indignation (which T. S. Eliot said is “the favorite emotion of the middle class”)....

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Jay Martin (review date 23 June 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Jay. “Praise for the Blighted and Blasted.” New Republic 168, no. 25 (23 June 1973): 28-29.

[In the following review, Martin finds Milton's Paradise Lost predictable and unsatisfying.]

Although John Collier has titled his new book Milton's Paradise Lost and announces that he intends to reproduce “Milton's concept” in a screenplay, in almost every respect this work is unlike Milton's; and only in appearance is it a screenplay. It is all John Collier and entirely romance.

For a starter Collier replaces Milton's Ptolemaic System with a physically correct galactic universe through which Satan plummets like a stricken...

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John Updike (essay date 20 August 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Updike, John. “Milton Adapts Genesis; Collier Adapts Milton.” New Yorker 49, no. 26 (20 August 1973): 84-86, 89.

[In the following essay, Updike explores Collier's interpretation of Milton's “Paradise Lost.”]

No clue is offered, on the jacket flap or in the author's rather testy “Apology,” as to what possessed John Collier to turn John Milton's “Paradise Lost” into a screenplay. Was this a commercial, practical project—after all, Cecil B. De Mille mined Exodus and Judges for a pretty penny—from whose shipwreck the writer salvaged his script? Or was it always to be a curiosity purely literary—a “Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind,” as...

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Anthony Burgess (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burgess, Anthony. “Introduction.” In The John Collier Reader, pp. xi-xv. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.

[In the following essay, Burgess surveys Collier's literary career.]

Ask the average Englishman about Milton, and he will say it is the name of a patent antiseptic. This is true, though not exclusively. Ask him about John Collier, and he will say that it is the name of a chain men's outfitters, probably adding the television jingle “John Collier, John Collier, the window to watch.” There is a nice irony about the fact that the real or immortal John Collier—writer, not tailor—is the last man in the world whose window is to be watched. He eschews...

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Tom Milne (essay date spring 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Milne, Tom. “The Elusive John Collier.” Sight and Sound 45, no. 2 (spring 1976): 104-8.

[In the following essay, Milne explores Collier's writing and films based on his stories.]

‘If thou be'st born to strange sights and if you don't mind picking your way through the untidy tropics of this, the globe, and this, the heart, in order to behold them, come with me into the highly coloured Bargain Basement Toy Bazaar of the Upper Congo. You shall return to England shortly.

—John Collier, His Monkey Wife

After languishing in limbo since its appearance at the London...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Arrowsmith, J. E. S. “Fiction—I.” London Mercury 28, no. 164 (June 1933): 169-71.

Arrowsmith laments that Collier failed to put “more of himself” into Tom's A-cold.

Moran, Helen. “Fiction II.” London Mercury 30, no. 177 (July 1934): 277-79.

Moran finds the inconsistent tone and mood of Defy the Foul Fiend to be disorienting to the reader.

Additional coverage of Collier's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68, 97-100; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 10;...

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