On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner

On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner

by Susan Thornton

Hardcover(1 CARROLL)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786707744
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 11/28/2000
Edition description: 1 CARROLL
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.23(d)

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Chapter One


"Only One in a Galaxy of Stars":
Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1979


I first read about John Gardner in July of 1979, in The New York Times Magazine. The cover showed a striking closeup of his face, scrutinizing the viewer with a wry, guarded look. He had straight white hair, not well combed, unruly, that fell to his collar, almost in the style of a woman's pageboy cut. He wore a blue-jean jacket over a blue flannel shirt; just at the margin of the photograph one could see the curving stem of his pipe. His face filled the cover of the magazine: the chin thrust forward, the eyes accessible yet hidden, holding a look that was a cross between an invitation and a dare. I couldn't stop looking at that face. Beside it the smaller inset photos of John Updike in a fur-collared coat, John Barth in beret and horn rims, and Saul Bellow in a suit jacket and tie looked negligible, boring. In yellow type a quote from John—"Almost all modern fiction is tinny, commercial and immoral"—in white type the title of the article, "The Sound and Fury Over Fiction," and under each other author's photo a quote in biting answer to John's remark.

    I turned at once to the article. Here was another photograph: John in a leather motorcycle jacket astride a Honda, just coming off a bridge, his square hands gripping the controls, his eyes hidden by opaque glasses, his hair curling out underneath his motorcycle helmet and over his collar. Then other photos, less flattering, one showing him with longer hair, wearing a suit jacket, holding a drink and apipe, posing with Kurt Vonnegut, Bernard Malamud, and John Barth, all smiling for the camera. I flipped the page. John smoking, quite obviously fat, hunched before an IBM Selectric typewriter and a desk strewn with papers, tins of tobacco, a telephone to his left. I began to read.

    I discovered this extraordinary man was forty-five. His work had gone unpublished for fifteen years because "no one would have him." He was now publishing fast and furiously, both his fiction, which was admired, and his criticism, which made people angry. He had grown up in Batavia, a small farming community outside Rochester, New York, where I had grown up. In this article I first encountered his voice in a series of lively quotes: confident, unusual, interesting remarks. At the very end of the text, John was quoted speaking about art and about joy. Art, he said,


made my life and it made my life when I was a kid, when I was incapable of finding any other sustenance, any other thing to lean on, any other comfort during times of great unhappiness. Art has filled my life with joy and I want everybody to know the kind of joy I know—that's what Messianic means.... I work all the time on my own fiction. I work hard and I work critically because I want to be part of that joy. I want to be a piece of the great conversation.


    Much later I realized that the writer of the article had meant to be unflattering, describing John in his black leather jacket crossing the campus at the State University of New York as "something like a pregnant woman trying to pass for a Hell's Angel." I read right past that to find a man who would speak openly, candidly about emotional topics—his love for his mother and father, his failed first marriage, his girlfriend—a man who could find joy in reading and contemplating literature. I encountered his direct and engaging voice: art had saved him when he was "a kid." I knew what he meant by "the great conversation," that dialogue begun by great minds of the past and carried on by thinkers of the present. I knew he was going to be at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in August of that year, and I was suddenly excited to be going there too.


I had recently been accepted at the conference as a paying contributor. In 1971, I had graduated from Middlebury College, which sponsors the conference. Because my undergraduate education had been in British literature, I had read very few contemporary American authors and none I'd really liked. I knew I had to play catch-up if I was going to be serious. I was then living on a narrow tree-lined street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, like a good student, I took the brochure that came from the Writers' Conference and trotted off to the bookstores surrounding Harvard Square. I scoured the shelves until I had one book by each fiction writer represented at the conference. My shopping list included Gail Godwin, John Irving, David Madden, Tim O'Brien, Lore Segal, Nancy Willard, Hilma Wolitzer, and John Gardner.

    Swinging my bag of books, I returned to my one-bedroom apartment and spent all my spare hours that summer on my front porch, sitting in an Adirondack chair, my feet up on the porch railing facing my landlady's crabapple tree, methodically reading one book after another.

    The pile of books next to my chair dwindled until I got to October Light, John's book, which had won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1976. I still have my dog-eared paperback copy, emblazoned at the top of the front cover with the announcement "10 weeks a New York Times bestseller!" As I read, I felt something different than I had in reading the other books, well done as they were. Here was an intriguing mind at work; here was evidence of an unusual sensibility.


"Corruption? I'll tell you about corruption, sonny!" The old man glared into the flames in the fireplace and trembled all over, biting so hard on the stem of his pipe that it cracked once, sharply, like the fireplace logs. You could tell by the way he held up the stem and looked at it, it would never be the same.


    As soon as I read the first words I was hooked. James Page, the protagonist of the novel, leapt from the text, and I shared both his anger and his disappointment. This book aroused feelings, not just ideas. This angry, miserly old man who had blown his TV screen "to hell" with his twelve-gauge shotgun was as real to me as one of my own relations.

    I read and read, losing myself in the story as I had lost myself in the treasured books of my childhood. I was intrigued by the characters as they developed, pleasantly surprised when John won me over with his image of a vital, energetic woman and then startled me with the detail that she was over eighty and used a walker. His description of physical landscape rang true; I had lived in Vermont and knew the land and people he was talking about. While I had been at Middlebury and he was writing about Bennington, I knew the "locking-in" season he wrote about; I could picture James Page's childhood memories of traveling by sleigh up over the hill and down into town before electric lights; I knew the townspeople and their Yankee frugality, their distrust of the college in their midst. The book has an odd structure, containing a novel within a novel. I enjoyed the inner novel, with its wild parody and outlandish plot. I decided the author had a puckish sense of humor; he was clearly poking fun at much of contemporary fiction.

    As I read, the book seemed to stick to my hands; I could not put it down. At the climax of the novel, when the reasons for the tragedy of James Page's life are revealed in all their stark, fatal inevitability, I felt my head was beginning to come apart. The story's denouement mixed the rational and the irrational. James Page's life came together in my mind like a puzzle, completely logical and understandable, but the last pages of the story opened up a mysterious and mystical reality. James Page is working with his beehives when he is surprised by a huge black bear, which ignores him and begins to eat his honey. The old Yankee farmer lifts his gun to shoot, but something strange happens.


As he was about to pull the trigger, something jerked the gun straight up—possibly, of course his own arm. He fired at the sky, as if warning a burglar. The bear jumped three feet into the air and began shaking exactly as the old man was doing, snatched up an armload of honeycombs, and began to back off.


    Page's son-in-law asks later why Page did not shoot the bear, and Page realizes that he thought he had heard the bear speaking to him in the voice of his dead wife, forgiving him, loving him.

    I sat still, absorbing the ending of this novel, not seeing the garden before my eyes and feeling gooseflesh rise on my arms. I filled the back page of the book with notes and immediately began to reread.

    Then I put the book down and thought hard. I looked at the copies of the pages I'd sent in as my writing sample and knew I couldn't show my amateurish work to the author of a book such as this. But who should I work with?

    From the time I had been in grammar school I had defined myself as a writer. In fifth and sixth grade I wrote story after story, creating and filling small booklets with writing of all types: adventures, science fiction, fables, morality plays. In seventh grade I wrote a novel, twenty chapters of a Civil War story where my heroine disguised herself as a man to join her love on the battlefield. I commissioned a classmate to do illustrations and carried the tightly folded draft pages in the pocket of my school uniform blazer like a talisman.

    I was the petted and adored only child of older parents; my mother had been thirty-eight when I was born, my father thirty-nine. Dad ran a family business that provided many luxuries—private school, European travel, country club memberships, and the like—which I accepted as a matter of course. That I would become a writer was something I also took for granted. I wasn't sure how it would happen or what it would mean, but I knew writing was my life.

    At Middlebury College I found a mentor, Bob Pack, who encouraged my poetry, but I found no channel for my fiction. My background prepared me for a conventional choice: to marry within my social class and build a life in the suburbs as the wife of an attorney or a stockbroker. However, I had a rebellious nature and kicked over the traces. I had read all of Hemingway and knew he had begun as a journalist; I decided to follow his lead and enrolled in journalism school at the University of Colorado, where I earned a master's degree in 1974.

    I returned east to my first job as editor and writer for a weekly black newspaper, the Bay State Banner, in Boston. After two years there I had saved enough money to leave my job and write a novel, a detective story with a then-offbeat hero, a female private eye.

    Once I'd finished the novel and submitted it to a publishing house, I veered even farther off the track. I had some money left and a taste for adventure. My role models were women in my family: a great-aunt who had traveled with her lover to the Orient in the years before World War I and an aunt who accompanied her father to Central America in the 1930s. As a young girl I had read Thoreau and taken him seriously. Like him, I did not want to die and discover that I had not lived. By the time my novel's first rejection letter arrived I had already planned a trip to Guatemala City to visit a friend of my parents, an eccentric American photographer. A pal in Boston agreed to act as an informal agent and keep submitting the book for me while I was gone, and off I went to Central America.

    On that trip I discovered the truth to the adage that "fortune favors the brave"—or, in my case, the foolhardy. I traveled through Guatemala in 1977 during the most oppressive years of the military regime, seeing but not understanding the soldiers in fatigues who patrolled the capital, cradling their submachine guns. I had just enough tourist Spanish to get me from one place to the next and vacationed on the beautiful shores of Lake Atitlán with oblivious American hippies, while the peasants who made their homes along the shores of that volcanic lake died in the struggle with their government.

    I left Guatemala City in February on a flight to New Orleans, right on time for Mardi Gras. I determined to watch this annual event. Did I know anyone in the city? No. Did I see that as a problem? No. My plane was delayed three hours leaving Central America, so I struck up a conversation with three American girls. "No sweat," one said. "My brother has a place right on Saint Charles. He'll put you up." With my new friends I waited at the airport in New Orleans for the limousine ordered by a boyfriend. The boyfriend turned out to be from Denver. I asked if he knew the only person I knew in Denver, a college acquaintance, and he had: they had played basketball together in high school.

    Reassured by my sense of the smallness and safety of the world, I went off to meet the brother on St. Charles. He did indeed take care of me, finding me separate accommodations, driving me around the city in his compact MG. From his front porch we watched the Mardi Gras parade; we ate red beans and rice; I had a high old time.

    I returned to Boston full of verve and high spirits and signed on almost immediately for a Jack London—style adventure, a summer as crew of the tall ship Regina Maris, sailing from Boston to the Arctic Circle and back. All this time I wrote. I drafted a new detective novel, a sequel to the first, with continuing characters, this one set in Central America. I kept a detailed journal and wrote a long nonfiction narrative about my voyage; I continued to work on my poetry. When I returned to Boston I went to work for the nonprofit organization that owned the Regina Maris and became their fund-raiser and public relations director.

    "Keep at your writing," my mother urged. "And what about Bread Loaf?"

    The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont is the oldest and best regarded of any American writers' conference. Founded in 1926, it has included on its faculty Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Norman Mailer, Shirley Jackson, and many other famous names in American letters. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Bread Loaf boasted a cluster of stars: Erica Jong, John Irving, and John Gardner.

    The conference was scheduled for twelve days in the middle of August. I arranged the time off, gave my apartment key to my neighbor, who promised to water the plants, and took the subway to the Greyhound bus terminal. In front of me in the ticket line stood a petite lady with long black hair, wearing a gauzy, flowing skirt. I knew before I asked that she too was going to Bread Loaf.

    Arlene Walsh was a poet and lived in suburban Boston. As the bus chugged north we compared hopes and shared information we had received from the conference secretary regarding room assignments, mailing address, meals, and so forth. It felt a lot like heading off to summer camp.

    At the terminal in Middlebury I saw the familiar blue of the college van. For me this was a homecoming. Our cheerful young driver made small talk as the van climbed the narrow road along the rushing creek, and soon enough, my heart beating fast, I saw the yellow buildings of the Bread Loaf Mountain campus.

    Arlene and I went to the inn desk to get our keys and directions to our rooms. My room was a double in the annex; Arlene saw me off with a cheery wave, and I plunked my suitcase down on the squeaky bed.

    Accommodations at Bread Loaf in that era were almost startlingly lacking in amenities. The beds were narrow, the blankets scratchy, the sheets mended, and the rooms cold. The heat worked only in the hall, where squatted an ancient black telephone with its heavy receiver and silver-edged rotary dial. I looked again at my information packet. Had I made the right decision?

    I heard a voice at the door and turned to meet my roommate, another writer from Cambridge, who had a name suitable to a romance author, Serena Crystal, and an appearance to match, with small bright eyes and a mane of cascading blond hair, like a pre-Raphaelite model. Serena had a high-pitched voice and a nervous laugh. Together we remarked about the spare room with its matched set of functional pine dressers, unpacked our shirts and shorts, and ventured out to get some dinner.

    The dining hall was bright and airy, with windows overlooking the road that went by the campus. Amid the hubbub of nervous and excited voices, the scraping of chairs, and the rattle of silverware, Serena leaned forward and asked, "Who are you working with?"

    Each paying contributor had been asked to name a primary teacher with whom he or she wanted to work; the staff made the assignments and strove to keep the size of the classes manageable. The high point for each contributor was his or her half-hour conference about the written work with the chosen teacher.

    While I had been reading all the Bread Loaf authors and deciding I wasn't good enough to bother John Gardner, I'd decided I was brave enough to work with Tim O'Brien, who was roughly my age. I knew he lived in Cambridge; his wife worked at Sail magazine, which had offices on Commercial Wharf in Boston, right next to the office where I worked. Tim's poetic novel, Going After Cacciato, had won the 1978 National Book Award. I didn't know enough to be intimidated by that; when I mailed back my packet, I had put him down as my first choice.

    A writer's conference is, for some people, a step on the path leading to the dream of publication. Literary anecdotes abound. The young poet Langston Hughes, working as a waiter, slipped his poems under the plate of Richard Wright, the honored guest at the banquet. Wright stormed the kitchen, clutching the poems, and Hughes's literary career was born. The hopeful novice writer dreams of showing a pile of dog-eared, coffee-stained manuscript pages to the star of a conference—for example, John Irving or John Gardner—and hearing the star say, "This is fabulous! Do you have a quarter? Let's go call my agent."

    While this may happen, it happens rarely. But the dream persists. In the meantime, the novice, the apprentice, and the accomplished writer can all sit in lectures, learn tips about "point of view," "omniscient narrators," "small press publishers," and, now, "publishing on the web." They can breathe the air breathed by those they worship and can talk about writing all day long.

    I told Serena my choice and she nodded approvingly. "Can you really believe we're here?" she asked. I shook my head, still trying to take it all in.

    I discovered my first night in the dining hall that the standard greeting, instead of "Hello," was "Do you write fiction or poetry?" Here lay a social reef that wrecked many friendships before they got up to full sail. If one said "I'm a poet" to a fiction writer, the response was usually a chilly "Oh" and a turned shoulder.

    The first few days were difficult. I wrote in my journal at the end of the first day: Exhausted—feels like a week long. A day or two later, I wrote: Feel so tense and nervous, feel I don't express myself well and there's no room to make mistakes. Slept soundly till four, then woke up cold as Serena bad closed the door. Opened it to let in the beat from the ball but couldn't get back to sleep. Tense and tired.

    I was sorry I'd come but determined to stick it out. I dropped into my student mode, dutifully attending all the lectures and readings, taking notes, sounding out different people to find a friend.

    I discovered that I was indeed comfortable with Tim O'Brien. Several other Bread Loaf contributors had chosen Tim as well; we became his "class." Our group had two meetings. At the first meeting, Tim praised one of the pieces of fiction I'd brought to show him and identified it as my work; at the next meeting he read a piece that didn't work and surprised the class by pointing out that I had written both pieces. His point, well taken, was that a good writer does not always produce good fiction.

    At my conference with him, Tim was encouraging. "Read big books and think about big issues," he urged me. "You've got the talent; that's why I'm spending so much time with you." As we sat talking that Sunday morning we were interrupted by the church service and a deep booming voice announcing, "We are all sinners!" Tim made a comic jump and looked around as if startled and I giggled. "That's an audacious thing to say," Tim remarked.

    There were still bad and lonely days, even though Tim was encouraging. In my journal I find: Miserable all day. All wrong. Tried to talk to people, didn't work. Nearly started crying at lunch. So hard to relax.

    I kept trying. I sought out Arlene; Serena and I compared notes on Cambridge, hung around together, made casual connections with other contributors roughly our age, and watched as John Irving served himself salad, as Tim smoked his cigarette, holding it with two tense fingers, as Howard Nemerov crossed the street from Maple Cottage to Treman. Treman didn't look like much, a small yellow wooden house just like others on the campus, but it was the nerve center of the hive: Treman was the faculty lounge, the watering hole, the inner sanctum. This was where all the famous writers retreated when they wanted to be alone. It may have looked ordinary, but once inside those magic doors, we on the outside imagined that anything could happen.

    A strict hierarchy ruled at Bread Loaf. I quickly discovered I was near the bottom—I had paid to attend. Invisible but potent barriers existed to separate the various levels of accomplishment. The very bottom were auditors: writers who paid tuition but were too scared to show their work to a teacher. Then came contributors: that was me. Lucky souls who had published one or two short stories could attend as scholars and have their tuition partially paid. Those who had a first novel or collection of stories in print were higher up the ladder and were called fellows; each helped read a faculty member's load of manuscripts and had tuition fully paid. Staff assistants had more than one book in print and were already on the faculty at a university. At the tippy top were the stars: Stanley Elkin, Linda Pastan, William Matthews, John Gardner. The brochure had bristled with honors unfamiliar to me: Guggenheim Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Lamont Award, and others. Somewhere in between were the conference support staff: waiters and waitresses, nurse, librarian, office assistants, and bookstore staff: these were all talented writers, some published, some not, but all judged good enough to earn their way at the conference.

    The staff at once enhanced these invisible boundaries and tried to pretend they didn't exist. We all mingled in the common dining hall, but some mingled more than others. Did I really have the nerve to sit next to Gail Godwin as she sliced into a piece of chicken? Hardly. I sat with Serena and we watched. After dinner, after the evening readings, we walked alongside the macadam road, scuffing our feet in the gravel, looking sideways at Treman, and wondering who was there and what was happening.

    Treman was strictly off limits. Admittance was carefully controlled. Contributors clustered on the porch of the inn, casting envious glances as John Irving casually crossed the lawn and Treman's screen door banged shut behind him, but most of us knew not even to try it.

    I was told that John Gardner spent every afternoon in the barn, and whoever wanted could go and talk to him there. I knew I didn't have the nerve to do that. My writing wasn't nearly good enough to show him, and I wouldn't have been able to think of anything to say.


One night at eight it was time for John's reading. He stood at the podium silently, waiting for the crowd to settle down, looking at the typescript in his hands. Outside it was dark and quiet; two or three latecomers crossed the lawn surrounding the Little Theatre. The spotlight shone on John's silver hair. Every seat was taken; the room was hushed. At last, in the quiet, he opened the folder and began to read.


I was in Madison, Wisconsin, on a lecture tour, when I first met Professor Agaard and his son.

    I listened to the first sentence and fell into a dream, sitting, transfixed, on my hard flimsy chair.

    John continued.


I was there to read a paper, brand new at the time (since then, as you may know, widely anthologized), "The Psycho-Politics of the Late Welsh Fairytale: Fee, Fie, Foe—Revolution!" The lecture was behind me, a thoroughly pleasant event, as usual, at least for me.... I was now deep into one of those long, intense celebrations that put the cap on such affairs, making the audience (those who make the party) seem a host of old friends.


    Now there were knowing laughs, some chuckles from his audience.


The whole first floor of the house was crowded; a few may have drifted to the second floor as well; and from the sound of things, there was another party roaring in the basement.... I arrived, divested myself of hat and coat, and began my usual fumbling with my pipe.


Those at Bread Loaf who extended the party to Treman knew precisely the scene John was describing.


I'd moved to my usual theater of action, backed against the drain-board in the large, bright kitchen, where I could be close to the ice in its plastic bag.... On every side of me, guests with their glasses were packed in so tightly that only by daring and ingenuity could one raise one's own and drink. There were the usual smiling students, heads tilted with interest, eyes slightly glazed. ... So I was holding forth, enjoying myself.... One plays the game, follows wherever drink and inspiration lead; what harm? I was the guest celebrity, every word worth gold; but I was only one in, excuse the expression, a galaxy of stars.


    John concluded his reading with the words "Freddy's Book," closed his folder, and stepped back from the podium. This section of the book ends with a teaser: Professor Winesap, the narrator of the story, has gone to talk to young Freddy, the monstrous son of Professor Agaard, and Freddy hands him an enormous pile of manuscript. It is his book "King Gustav and the Devil," a retelling of Swedish history. This manuscript filled out the rest of the story, published later that year as Freddy's Book.

    I shook my head and blinked, as if waking from a deeply involving dream. Around me the audience dispersed, except for a few who formed an informal line, jockeying for position by the door, their ankles awash in the cool night breezes rising off the lawn.

    I was stunned by the experience of the reading, both the involving, intriguing story and the charisma of the reader. John's voice was hypnotic, his physical presence palpable. He had star quality, exuding the sense that he was a center of enormous energy. He embodied intriguing contradictions. With his great verbal facility, he could make words do whatever he wanted them to do, yet he chose to tell an apparently simple story rather than overwrite and show off with difficult, intricate language. He was highly learned, a great intellect, but there clung to his shoulders the wildness of the competitive motorcycle racer he had been in his youth. I could picture him in an academic robe, on a podium, nodding as he accepted a fellowship, and also as a motorcycle-riding outlaw, grinning as he tightened his hand on the throttle, as his engine roared, as he outraced the cops.

    The other writers at the conference now seemed, next to John, to be only dull people who wasted their lives at their desks. John seemed to know how to live. I wanted to connect with that energy, and I resolved that I could not simply walk away: I wanted to shake his hand, to speak with him, to encounter him face-to-face.

    I took my place in line, and when at last I reached John, I extended my hand. "That was a wonderful reading," I told him. His grip was firm, his hand warm. He looked at me for a long minute. I couldn't think of anything else to say. There was another person at his elbow, and I moved on.


After Bob Pack's lecture the next day, I went up to speak to him and we hugged. "Susan, I'm so glad to see you up here," he said, in that sonorous voice that seemed to start way deep in his chest. "Are you still working on your poetry?" Bob was now the director of the conference. As I turned away, he touched my shoulder. "Listen, come on over to Treman any time."

    Those words were the golden key in my hand, but did I dare unlock the door?

Table of Contents

Prefaceix
1. "Only One in a Galaxy of Stars": Bread Loaf Writers'
Conference, 19791
2. "The Biggest Martini I Ever Saw"16
3. "You're a Natural": Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 198028
4. "But How Can Someone Be Scared of Me?"35
5. "What a Wonderful Lover He Would Make, but No Kind of
Husband"47
6. "A Lot of Confusion": Visiting Susquehanna, Fall 198055
7. "You Have a Responsibility to That Eighty-Year-Old Lady":
Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 198167
8. "Why Don't You and Me—and Liz—Have a Really
Brilliant Short Life?"89
9. "I Threw Snowballs at Your Window"112
10. "I Hope I Never Hurt You"124
11. "A Cat's Paw Has Two Parts"149
12. "The Best Man in the World"160
13. "Rochester Girl"171
14. "A Person Should Wear His Life on His Face"190
15. "You've Got Nothing Alive in There"204
16. "Your Sister's Here"210
17. "I Kissed Her, I Just Kissed Her"214
18. "I'm a Great Artist andYou're Just an Accountant"220
19. "Better than Solzhenitsyn"229
20. "I'm Not Really Interested in Writing Anymore": Bread
Loaf Writers' Conference, 1982233
21. "I Wrote Her that I'd Leave You"250
22. "Is Mrs. Gardner There?"263
23. "I'd Like Him to Be Buried with My Ring"274
24. "Amazing Grace"285
25. "It's Not Awarded Posthumously": Sweden and the Nobel
Prize298
26. "I Could Hurt You Very Much"300
27. "The Woman I Want to Marry"304
28. "Mommy Misses You"316
Acknowledgments320

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