The ProsenPeople

Po-wer-ful: Fashioning the Character of Joseph Stalin

Thursday, February 18, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Paul Goldberg wrote about the family stories that sparked The Yid and the popularity of King Lear in midcentury Moscow and Yiddish theater. With the release of his first novel, Paul has been guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

My novel The Yid is about a plot to assassinate Iosif Stalin before he launches the largest purge of his 29-year rule.

Stalin absolutely had to figure in my novel directly. I needed his physicality, his spiritual being. I had to get inside his skull, to taste his paranoia, his dementia. This task was an anathema of historical research. It’s impressionistic, existential. I was grasping for telling details that provided windows into the tyrant’s final hours. Does he believe the end is near? Does he believe that there can be no such thing as the world without Stalin? How does it feel to experience his brand of dementia, his brand of paranoia?

I scoured many volumes, looking for details, finally making a surprising finding: telling details are largely determined by the teller. For example, in a book called The Unquiet Ghost, Adam Hochschild describes traveling through Gorbachev’s Russia as it struggles to reconcile with its Stalin-era past. Hochschild asks the same questions I ask as a novelist, looking for the same insight into the tyrant’s mind.

At Stalin’s dacha in Sochi, Hochschild describes the beautifully restrained Art Deco décor. Stalin’s other dacha in Kuntsevo, outside Moscow, is similarly elegant. Stalin-era architecture projects opulence. There are colossal sculptures, big columns. It’s the opposite of the modernist structures of the twenties and thirties and is eerily reminiscent of the Nazi Gothic style of architecture. From Hochschild’s reliable depictions, I was able to pick up on this strange inconsistency and the question it demands:

Why does this brigand choose to live in an environment so clearly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright? Stalin’s interiors look like the sort of places where an American captain of industry—I am thinking of Nelson Rockefeller—would have been quite at home. Could it be that he is not as uncouth as we would like to believe? Does this choice of architecture come from within this man or does it just happen?

Another telling detail came from Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. In her memoir 20 Letters to a Friend she recalls discovering that the old man hung photos of children on the wall of his study, cutouts from Soviet magazines. Svetlana attributes this to Stalin’s efforts to substitute fictional children for the grandchildren with whom he had no contact.

I trust Svetlana’s story, but not her explanation. What if the children are a part of the old man’s dementia? What if they are the nucleus of the world as he experiences it in the winter of 1953? What if they are the inspiration for his plans? Stalin doesn’t sleep much. He waits for children to step off the illustrations pinned to the walnut panels of Frank Lloyd Wright-esque rooms. How will the world exist without Stalin? The old man hates doctors, negates the very existence of disease. Will children come to his defense? Are they his guardians or harbingers of his death?

Images tell the story, too. Stalin is a little man with a crooked left arm. The arm has petrified, turned into granite, hard as a statue, which would be fitting, except the fingers curl. If you can part them with your right hand, a cigarette can be inserted. Or part them further and fold in a pipe. The elbow moves forward, then back again, but not the arm. It hangs at an obtuse angle. And pain is close, lurking in the left shoulder.

I had the set and Stalin’s physical characteristics.

From there, it would have been a cop-out to describe a demonic presence. I needed to know from someone I trusted what it was like to converse with the man.

Here, I made use of the memoir of the Jugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas. It’s titled Conversations with Stalin and tells the story of his three brief meetings with Stalin. It works so well because the narrator doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive or objective. Svetlana isn’t separate enough from her father to provide the sort of telling details I needed as a novelist. (Nikita Khruschev, another notable memoirist, was a part of the same stratum.) By contrast, Djilas is an outsider, an intellectual, and he stays in the frame at all times, providing one telling detail after another.

In one of these meetings, a scene that “might be found only in Shakespeare’s plays,” Djilas registers a complaint about Red Army soldiers raping and murdering women in areas they had liberated. The comment infuriates Stalin: The Red Army has fought for thousands of kilometers before marching into Belgrade in 1944, he objects, “And such an army was insulted by no one else by Djilas! Djilas, of whom I could least have expected such a thing, a man whom I received so well!” Stalin rages. “And an army which didn’t spare its blood for you! Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are? Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”

Later in the feast, Stalin kisses Djilas’s wife, noting that he made this loving gesture at the risk of being charged with rape.

Dijlas’s final meeting with Stalin portends the latter man’s advancing dementia. “There was something both tragic and ugly in his senility,” Djilas observes. “The tragic was invisible—these were the reflections in my head regarding the inevitability of decline in even so great a personality. The ugly kept cropping up all the time. Though he had always enjoyed eating well, Stalin now exhibited gluttony, as though he feared that there would not be enough of the desired food left for him. On the other hand, he drank less…

“He laughed at inanities and shallow jokes… In one thing, though, he was the Stalin of old: stubborn, sharp, suspicious whenever anyone disagreed with him.”

At one point in this last conversation, Stalin opines about the atom bomb: “That is a powerful thing, pow-er-ful!” I don’t know the precise Russian words, but I think they would be: “Moschnaya shtuka, moshch-na-ya!”

This is the “mountain man of the Kremlin” described by Mandelshtam:

His fat fingers are blacker than worms,
His words weighing a pood—16-kilo.
Roach mustache emits a thick laugh,
And a glow emanates from his boots.

This is the Stalin I wanted my conspirators to encounter on March 1, 1953: crass, taunting, inane, demented, yet still as “pow-er-ful” as the weapons of hellish destruction he has in his arsenal.

Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals: Part 3 of a 3-Part Conversation

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | Permalink
This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here and the second installment, "A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander," here. They have been blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, I want to ask you about varieties of crypto-Jews—those who conceal their Judaism in order to preserve it (as in your story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope” set in the Caucasus), and also, perhaps, those who conceal their Jewishness to preserve themselves (as the Holocaust survivor, the Polish Jew in “Mimicry”). Why do so many crypto-Jews populate the pages of your stories, and why are there fewer traditional Jews in them?

David Shrayer-Petrov: I think that many Jews used to want to play down their Jewishness, at least in their public conduct… and I myself was sometimes guilty of that in pre-refusenik Soviet life.

MDS: But crypto-Jewishness is also an inherent quality of your stories, your characters. That’s why I contrasted your crypto-Jews with your publically observant Jews.

DSP: Pious Jews don’t usually stray from their public image or literary stereotype. Such model Jews are a source of my great admiration, but as a fictionist I don’t have much to say about them. It’s been done before by Sholem Aleichem, Bashevis Singer… even Singer was writing about Jews who exhibited a shift of behavior.

MDS: Speaking about shifts of behavior, Jewish or otherwise, your stories carry a strong dose of sexual tension; “The Bicycle Race” alone is rife with eroticism. I keep thinking of Dinner with Stalin and of Dark Avenues, Ivan Bunin’s manifesto of the love story. Can we speak of your book as a book of love stories?

DSP: I would prefer to call it a book of stories about love. In these stories there isn’t only love for a person, but also a subtle, yet powerful love for a Jew’s homeland, for Russia. And this love for—this love of—one’s native Russian language and culture is perhaps even stronger than sexual love in my stories.

MDS: And what about the love of American culture? I remember from my earliest Moscow childhood the framed photographs of Hemingway and Robert Frost on the walls of your study.

DSP: Yes, I was fascinated by them. But they didn’t touch me the way first Chekhov and Bunin, and later Nabokov touched me. Even Hemingway doesn’t touch me this way today. I don’t know what happened… It’s also one’s age.

MDS: Perhaps it’s one’s age. Or perhaps it’s your authorial perspective mixing colors of love and irony. During a recent event at Books on the Square in Providence, in responding to a question by a journalist of Jewish Soviet descent, you stated that everything you write is autobiographical, including your animal characters, be they wild turkeys or hippos. How literally can one take these words?

DSP: Autobiographical in the sense that each bird hum or love call, each sigh or roar of the hippopotamus, each tiny vibration of my story lines has its source in me—because I’ve experienced it. And if I hadn’t literally experienced it, then I thought that I’d lived it. Believe me, in our mind we sometimes live though an imagined life that is as real as the one we experience outside of our consciousness.

MDS: You’ve written some forty-five short stories and novellas and you have also written seven novels. Going back to the secrets of Jewish story-writing, I want to ask you what distinguishes the short story from the novel—and specifically your short stories from your novels?

DSP: As a genre, the short story is more fragile and tender than the novel. The short story does not tolerate falsity or unintended ambiguity. Shortcomings are immediately exposed on the face of the short story. At the same time, the short story does not agree particularly well with overabundant continuous depiction of people and their ways—with the so-called realistic-representational mode. In a successful short story, each line gains the potential to be read and perceived mythologically. For instance, in “Behind the Zoo Fence,” the hippopotamus is mythological in his capacity to send mystical vibes of healing to a young woman fighting a lethal infection at a nearby hospital.

MDS: You speak of your short stories as possessing a fantastical quality. This is, of course, a feature of Jewish fiction, from Sholem Aleichem to Bashevis Singer to Malamud. What are some of the literary sources of your stories?

DSP: I have always been drawn to fairy tales, legends, and myths. This goes back to my childhood, when I spent three wartime years in a remote Russian village hidden in the Ural Mountains. I was drawn to these things, but not so much to what is popularly known as science fiction. In modern Russian poetry and fiction I have admired works that were simultaneously fantastical tales and stories of social fantasy. Think of the Strugatsky Brothers—those Jewish-Russian geniuses of social fantasy.

MDS: Please explain what you have in mind when you call some of your short stories “fantellas”? This is your coinage.

DSP: From the skein of prose, grounded in realistic predicaments, I grow elements of what I call fantellism. I take these elements beyond the limits of so-called real life, and I pour them into the vessels naturally equipped to contain fairy tales. I call such a story a fantella, and through translation, my fantellas have entered American literature.

MDS: But could I please ask you to be more specific about the fantellas in Dinner with Stalin.

DSP: I already mentioned “Behind the Zoo Fence” with its hippo and his healing powers. Let me also mention “Mimicry” (where it’s sometimes impossible to separate the magic kingdom of marionettes from the real lives of puppeteers) and “Where Are You, Zoya?” (with its mysterious appearances of a wild turkey who bonds with an elderly Soviet émigré, she the widow of a Jewish poet who perished in the Gulag). There are other stories to read and think about. But let me stop here because the process of summarizing a new book not only arouses one’s curiosity but also takes away from the pleasures of imagining another life.

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and  America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander: Part 2 of a 3-Part Conversation

Wednesday, July 09, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories  in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribes series. Read the first installment, "A Fictional Model of the Former USSR," here. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s continue with our topic. What happens after a Jewish writer emigrates from the USSR to the USA? Of the fourteen stories in Dinner with Stalin, you wrote 13 in America, as an immigrant. What has changed in your creative laboratory?

David Shrayer-Petrov: First of all both the immediate environment and the greater environment have changed. Most of these stories fashion Russian—Jewish-Russian—characters living in America. In this sense, I’ve become an American writer. Take the story “The Valley of Hinnom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could never have written this story without knowing that the main characters are former refuseniks living in the US.

MDS: One more “American” question, then. A number of your stories are set in New England cities and towns, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts—Providence, Little Compton, Worcester, towns on Cape Cod. And there are also European stories set in Paris, Moscow and Leningrad, and scenes of Rome and Jerusalem, composed, as it were, from memory. How have many years of living in New England influenced your stories?

DSP: I’ve lived here for almost twenty-eight years. I think that I’ve rooted myself in New England. It has become my second—now my main—habitat. If asked about it, I now respond without hesitation that I’m a New Englander, even though I lived for fifty years in Russia, in Leningrad and Moscow. I actually wonder how I was able to write, so many years later, the short story “The Bicycle Race” and set it in the Leningrad of my youth. I guess I really wanted to fish out of the depth of memory and to reconstruct the image of a very complex individual. He’s called “Shvarts” in my story, but his prototype was Eduard Chernoshvarts (nicknamed “Chyorny” which literally means “black” in Russian), a famous Soviet cyclist. He was a Jew who had risen above the masses in the 1940s, when there was a strong popular anti-Jewish sentiment. In my story he’s a great Jewish athlete, but hardly a Jew of high moral standing…

MDS: …yes and no, but to return to the question of a Jewish writer in New England… if we look analytically at your stories, it appears that you write without estrangement about today’s life in New England (as in such stories as “A Storefront Window of Miracle”) and about your youth in Russia (as in “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave”). Yet you write with a much greater degree of estrangement about your last three Soviet decades, especially the refusenik years.

DSP: Yes, I think it’s true. In this regard “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave,” the only story in Dinner with Stalin that I wrote while still living in Russia, is a case in point.

MDS: Our English translation of this story had first appeared in Commentary, and I think it tapped our shared memory of a Jewish past in Eastern Europe. A Jewish family forever broken by turbulent events, a halutz, love and longing—these are things to which Jewish-American readers might be particularly attuned.

DSP: I think that throughout his or her entire life, every Jew is haunted by some poignant detail of the past… Say, one had a great-grandmother who was a traditional Jew in the full sense of this term. And then, across countries and languages, this image of a Jewish great-grandmother was being passed on from immigrant grandmother to mother to American child. And it has thus survived.

MDS: I agree, “Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother’s Grave” is the most universally Jewish story in Dinner with Stalin. So let’s continue with questions of Jewish family and marriage. In each of your stories you observe and comment on aspects of love and marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Critics have pointed out that for you as a Jewish storyteller this is a key question. Why?

DSP: I have observed very many mixed marriages growing up. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was married to a Russian woman who was an observant Orthodox Christian. And there’s a family legend that when I was an infant, a five- or six-month old, she brought me to church. But who can now tell…. The very marriage between Russia and Jewry is, I think, a symbol that was supposed to divert the striking hand of antisemites—and at times it did do that, but at other times it did not, only nurturing false hopes.

MDS: This is a very relevant topic in today’s America, and for that reason I think the stories in Dinner with Stalin will be of interest to Jewish-American readers.

DSP: Yes, but here there’s a religious agenda to this problem as one must decide about the religion of one’s children. In the Soviet Union such decision-making was less manifest in mixed marriages. But in 1953, Stalin’s last year and the pivotal year for Soviet Jews, with genocidal scenarios in the air, there were non-Jewish spouses who, out of fear, sought to dissolve their marriages to Jews. This shameful conduct of some of the non-Jews married to Jews resembles what happened in Germany after the Nazis came to power.

MDS: Before we pause and have some tea with lemon, let me ask you what is now a fashionable question: What’s your list of 5 Jewish books which everyone must read—that is, besides Dinner with Stalin?

DSP: This is a very partial list. I would recommend: The Ugly Duchess by Feuchtwanger, Heavy Sand by Rybakov, Shosha by Bashevis Singer, Ravelstein by Bellow (and given Thomas Mann’s Jewish connections, Death in Venice), and Ilf and Petrov’s dilogy The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf.

MDS: May I also add a personal favorite—and may this wish soon come true— your refusenik saga Herbert and Nelly, which is being translated into English.

Check back tomorrow for Part 3: "Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author’s son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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A Fictional Model of the Former USSR: Part 1 of a 3-Part Conversation

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 | Permalink

This week father and son, neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts and longtime collaborators, David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer discuss Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories in a three-part conversation conducted for the Visiting Scribe series. They will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s start with a basic question. What are the stories gathered in Dinner with Stalin about?

David Shrayer-Petrov: Above all else, Dinner with Stalin is about Russian Jews who found themselves abroad, first emigrating and later grafting themselves onto American soil. My characters perceive themselves, especially when overseas, as Americans—even though at home in the US they may think of themselves as Russians. But if you pressed them on the subject, “You’re Russian?” they would answer, “Yes, we’re Russian. Russian Jews.” As a writer I weave the fabric of my stories from different balls of yarn: my characters appear as Americans at work, as Russians at home, while in fact they have Jewish souls.

MDS: If we take the title story, “Dinner with Stalin,” as a symbol of the whole collection, how does it express the essence of your book?

DSP: The title story doesn’t only encapsulate the Jewish question. This group of émigré friends is visited by Stalin who has come from the other world. It’s actually an actor who masterfully plays Stalin, bringing the whole thing to the point of absurdity; the audience begins to believe him—the way they temporarily believe the actor playing Hitler in Ray Bradbury’s “Darling Adolf.” Present among this motley group are representatives of a number of nationalities of the former USSR, including Armenians, Azeris, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews. Here Jews enjoy parity, and the émigré protagonist and his wife, Mira, end up asking Stalin the most blunt questions about Soviet and Jewish history.

MDS: So in fact “Dinner with Stalin” is a fictional model of the former Soviet Union?

DSP: …yes, that’s right. And also a model of a United Nations session…

MDS: …convening in post-Soviet times…

DSP: …exactly. At this session representatives of different post-Soviet nations testify about Stalinism and other harrowing aspects of the past.

MDS: Let’s digress for a moment and talk about your path as both a writer of fiction and a Jewish author. You started out as a poet, and you hadn’t become a writer of stories until the 1980s, having already written three novels and two books of non-fiction. The short story became one of your chosen forms. Why do you think you embraced the short story later in your career?

DSP: I believe this had to do with what I demanded of myself. I had been regarding the short story as a gem that not every writer gets to cut and polish. For me the stories of Zweig, Thomas Mann, Bunin, Nabokov— Chekhov above all—and of the early Soviet writers such as Olesha and Babel—represented the highest mastery of the craft. As a younger writer I had stories to tell, but I hadn’t fathomed how to compose short stories until I became a Jewish refusenik and was living in isolation from the official Soviet culture. And already as a refusenik I understood that there is a magic device of fiction-making, which one needs to realize in order to compose a story—to conjure it up rather than copy it from so-called real life. This magic fictional quality—an inimitable vibration of feeling—is something Chekhov’s stories exhibit in the fullest sense.

MDS: You had a very early piece of short prose titled “The Sun Fell into the Mine Shaft” from the early 1960s, which was about a young Jew’s realization that he could never be fully integrated into the Russian mainstream. I find it very intriguing that you hadn’t begun to write short stories until you became a refusenik.

DSP: The Jewish question had been a source of much trepidation. As you can imagine, by the early 1960s, I had already lived through a lot. The Doctors’ Plot [of 1952-1953], when Jews had again experienced a nearing abyss, occurred during my senior year in high school. The Jewish theme had stung me. But before we applied for exit visas, I had been distancing myself from writing fiction about Jews. I had been tying my own Jewish hands. But I couldn’t suppress these urges.

MDS: Your stories, almost all of them, feature Jewish characters. Is writing almost exclusively about Jewish characters what makes a writer-Jew a Jewish writer?

DSP: I think that’s important. At least there’s a Jewish calculus at work. If you’re a writer of Jewish origin but you never write about Jews… hmm…I don’t know.

MDS: And if this is not only a matter of Jewish themes or characters but something else, can one then speak of a Jewish poetics—or specifically of the Jewish short story? What is that Jewish something else in writing?

DSP: It’s a secret, and I don’t think you can isolate it the way scientists isolate a gene. Otherwise one could take this Jewish something and transfer it onto any material. Luckily, it doesn't work this way. Each writer has his or her own Jewish secret. Babel has his own, and we immediately feel it. Or take Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov and their classic novels The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf. Even though most of the characters aren’t Jewish, the authorial grin is very Jewish. Or consider Grossman’s Life and Fate… the way the author mourns the Jewish fate as he sets it against the backdrop of the entire country’s devastating fate.

MDS: Yes, but I think that in Grossman there’s also a distinctly Jewish intellectual commentary. I was actually wondering: To what extent is a Jewish writer a child of Judaic civilization and to what extent is he a product of his own epoch and language?

DSP: I’m not a great fan of the notion of genetic Jewish memory. There are universal human genes, and there are genes highly prevalent in the Jewish genotype, but I don’t think this has much to do with Jewish writing. What does matter is that writers grew up in a Jewish family—even in post-revolutionary Russia—where they were exposed to Jewish conversations.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: "A Jewish-Russian Writer as New Englander"

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shrayer-Petrov emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is the author of twenty-three books in his native Russian and of several books in English translation, including Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories. His latest book is the collection Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. Dinner with Stalin was edited by the author's son, Maxim D. Shrayer, a writer and a professor at Boston College. Two stories in the collection were translated by Emilia Shrayer, Shrayer-Petrov's wife of over fifty years and a former refusenik activist. The other translators include Arna Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar, Molly Godwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Maxim D. Shrayer.

Copyright © 2014 by David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer

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