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[Reviews]

Dissolution by Details

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Bellow and the problems of literary biography

Discussed in this essay:

The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964, by Zachary Leader. Knopf. 832 pages. $40.
There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor. Viking. 608 pages. $35.

Definitive” is the highest praise for a biographer, the only adjective worth aspiring to. Yet nothing is harder to define, more essentially unknowable, than the life of another human being, with all its ambiguities and knowledge gaps — the “epistemological insecurity” about which Janet Malcolm, one of the most trenchant critics of the art of biography (and an occasional biographer herself), has often written. Any honest biographer will admit that no biography can properly be definitive, because of the shaping required to form a coherent narrative out of the ragtag bits and pieces of a life. What to include, what to omit, where to begin, where to pause — these are deliberate choices, and each biographer will make them differently. But biographers continue to reach for the brass ring, even if they risk falling off their horse.

Saul Bellow © Giovanni Giovannetti/Effigie/Writer Pictures

Saul Bellow © Giovanni Giovannetti/Effigie/Writer Pictures

Zachary Leader’s Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964 is the second full-length biography of Bellow, following James Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography (2000).There are several options for a biographer who comes to his or her subject second. (I myself am the second biographer of Shirley Jackson.) One is to pretend that the first biography does not exist, and to say as little about it as possible. This will not work, however, if the first biographer had access to information or interviewees, as Atlas did, who are not available to the second. Another is to write a short book that makes no pretense to comprehensiveness but instead advances an original argument. A third possibility is to attempt to overwhelm the first biographer, stunning him or her into submission with a bewildering spray of evidence, quotation, and assertion. This last is the path chosen by Leader, who previously wrote a thousand-page biography of Kingsley Amis. The sheer size of his book suffices to announce his intentions: this first volume, which picks up two generations before Bellow’s birth, in 1915, and ends in 1964 with Herzog, his career-defining masterpiece, comes in at more than 800 pages.

Atlas’s book was by no means universally admired: it was the subject of scathing reviews by James Wood and Lee Siegel, the latter in these pages. And Leader, an American who teaches at Roehampton University in London, brings to his biography a rich store of literary knowledge that allows him to make surprising and often insightful connections. He has dug deeply into Bellow’s archive at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, and his book makes the most of these unpublished materials.

Still, Atlas shadows him like a ghost. Even as Leader mines Atlas’s book for information, he points repeatedly to perceived errors of fact, often regarding the smallest details. One example: in 1935, Bellow had to withdraw from the University of Chicago, after completing only one year, because of an accident at his family’s coal works. Someone was killed, and the company was not insured. The victim may have been a truck driver (Atlas) or a child (Leader); the policy may have lapsed by accident (Atlas) or because of a decision by Bellow’s father (Leader). It is impossible to be certain which version is correct — no one remembers the event clearly, and the documentation is insufficient. In any event, the results were the same: a catastrophe that put the family in debt and led to Bellow’s abrupt departure from the university. (He enrolled the following fall at Northwestern, where he would finish his degree.)

Such details — both the stories themselves and the lengths to which Leader goes to prove his version or discredit Atlas — bloat this leviathan far beyond reasonable size. Incidental characters who appear only briefly are given multiple pages of backstory. (By the time Bellow’s childhood finally ends, around page 150, I knew far more about his family than about my own.) Leader devotes exhaustive analysis to determining whether the apartment building in which Bellow grew up — a building that no longer exists — stood at 3245, 3246, 3340, or 3342 Le Moyne Street. We are told which courses Bellow took in college, all of them, and the grades he received. In an account of the brief period when Ralph Ellison shared Bellow’s house in upstate New York, Leader reports that he personally tested Ellison’s “elaborate procedure” for brewing coffee and deemed it not worth the effort.

Leader defends the length of his book by quoting Richard Ellmann, the author of an exceptional biography of James Joyce (which, at only one volume, looks positively restrained by comparison): “If an individual life is described too leanly, we grow anxious, we suspect distortion, we wonder if the essences are really there.” But if a life is described too exhaustively, the sheer quantity of facts threatens to bury the subject as an individual. Praising Ellison’s Invisible Man, Bellow once wrote that the writer’s job is to synthesize “the vast mass of phenomena, the seething, swarming body of appearances, facts and details. From this harassment and threatened dissolution by details, a writer tries to rescue what is important.” In Leader’s biography, Bellow the man — and especially Bellow the Jewish man — can be seen only occasionally and indistinctly through the haze of information.

Because Bellow’s work was so autobiographical — often explicitly so — he presents a special difficulty for the biographer. The Adventures of Augie March, which traces the coming-of-age of a Bellow-like hero (Jewish, raised in Chicago), with numerous incidents borrowed from reality, includes one episode drawn so closely from life — Augie’s encounter in Mexico with a man who trains an eagle to hunt iguanas — that the real eagle trainer demanded attribution after recognizing his fictional counterpart. Notoriously, Herzog was inspired by Bellow’s second wife’s affair with his onetime close friend, and it depicts both figures all too recognizably.

At first, such literalness might seem like a biographer’s boon: who better than the subject to tell his own story? But the trouble is that Bellow wasn’t telling his own story — not exactly. The essential difficulty of writing the life of any fiction writer is to understand the ways in which the substance of a life is transmuted into art. As Bellow once put it, “The fact is a wire through which one sends a current.” Janis Freedman Bellow, the fifth and last of his wives, described his technique in her preface to his Collected Stories. It was, she wrote, a process of weaving together “event, accident, memory, and thought”:

When pieces of life begin to find their way into the work, there is always something magical about the manner in which they are lifted from the recent — or distant — past or the here and now, and then kneaded and shaped and subtly transformed into narrative.

The process, she said, was “nothing like the cutting and pasting of actual events. Biographers, beware: Saul wields a wand, not scissors.”

How to chart the source of the current, the magic in the wand? Leader locates the origins of much of Bellow’s work in his upbringing as the child of Russian immigrants. He was born in Canada in 1915, the youngest of four children, and grew up in Chicago. The outlines of the story are familiar from many of Bellow’s books, which in turn echo “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” an unfinished novel that he started and abandoned in the 1950s. His father, a religious Jew named Abraham Bellows (Bellow altered the spelling of his name as an adult), and his mother, Lescha, were both from shtetls in western Russia, near the present-day border of Latvia and Belarus. They moved illegally to St. Petersburg after their marriage, in 1905, where they lived on forged papers. The story of their emigration became Bellow family lore: Abraham kept a “tattered copy” of a newspaper article describing his “arrest, conviction, and subsequent escape to Canada,” which he proudly showed to his children and grandchildren. (The headline was a jew escapes.) Though he hired a researcher to hunt through numerous Russian archives, Leader was unable to track down the article or to ascertain the exact nature of Abraham’s crime.

The family’s emigration to America was prompted by similar circumstances. As the Bellow family told it, during a brief period of bootlegging Abraham and a partner were hijacked on the road between Montreal and the United States. Everything they had was stolen, including their truck, and Abraham was beaten and left in a ditch. Maury, the eldest of the Bellow sons, went to look for their father, and discovered him in torn clothes. He was bloody and weeping but not altogether defeated: when Maury asked what had happened, Abraham “beat the shit” out of him. Leader tells this story to demonstrate Abraham’s toughness as well as the way in which Bellow drew upon it, with alterations, in his fiction. A similar scene in Herzog depicts the father’s return after the hijacking but leaves out the beating. The omission, Leader writes poignantly, is the act of “a good son, a loving son, an American son,” though it also makes sense on narrative grounds.

But in many other cases, Leader characterizes figures in Bellow’s life simply as “models” for their fictional counterparts, without comment on how Bellow transformed them: the Einhorns in Augie March are said to be based on the family of his childhood friend Sam Freifeld; Aunt Zipporah in Herzog was inspired by Rosa Gameroff, Abraham’s sister. Bellow sometimes acknowledged his models, although the likenesses weren’t always as exact as he expected them to be. “Did you recognize the man in the lifeboat?” he wrote to Alfred Kazin, referring to a character in Augie March who was inspired by a landlord he and Kazin had shared. When Kazin admitted that he hadn’t, Bellow was “astonished, outraged.” With Freifeld, he hedged: “personages like [your family] appear in Augie March,” he wrote, but “someone else is in your place.”

How did Bellow use himself as a model? Leader’s book does not fully answer this crucial question. In an interview in 1964, Bellow said that the protagonist of Henderson the Rain King (1959) was the character most “spiritually close” to himself, “although there are no superficial likenesses.” Henderson is (improbably) a multimillionaire pig farmer, somewhat older than Bellow was at the time of writing, with a beautiful young wife and two children. Nonetheless, he is dissatisfied with his life, dissolute and alcoholic, and plagued by an inner voice that cries constantly, “I want, I want, I want!” In search of fulfillment, he travels to Africa, where he meets Dahfu, a tribal leader who (even more improbably) spouts teachings based on those of Wilhelm Reich, the psychoanalyst who invented the orgone box as an aid to sexual energy. Bellow, like many others in his circle, was treated by a pupil of Reich’s; there was a period in which he regularly went out into the woods to howl, a method Reich recommended for releasing negative energy. Leader sees the work — like Herzog, which would immediately follow it — as a form of “self-satire.” But he doesn’t seem to wonder what it is that Bellow might want, want, want!

For all the detail, Leader’s Bellow is oddly bloodless. As a youth, he dabbled briefly in Communism, without any lasting effects. (In accordance with Leader’s no-fact-left-behind policy, we learn that the uncle of Bellow’s childhood friend David Peltz ran a political group at his mission house, the Peniel Community Center; that peniel is Hebrew for “face of God”; that Peltz’s uncle converted to Christianity; that he served coffee, cocoa, and doughnuts at the meetings; and that after an appeal to accept Jesus, speeches were made by Stalinists, Trotskyists, and supporters of Norman Thomas. Surely a place described so carefully must have played an important role in Bellow’s life? Well, no. It’s not clear that he ever attended a meeting there.) William Frank Bryan, Bellow’s department chair at Northwestern, discouraged him from graduate study in English with a blatantly anti-Semitic remark — “You weren’t born to it,” the professor said, advising him to study anthropology instead — but Bellow’s response is elided from Leader’s book. “My secret reaction was, ‘Well, the hell with you,’ as I walked out,” he later remembered. (Leader gives us the entire career history of Melville J. Herskowitz, the anthropologist who arranged a fellowship for Bellow at the University of Wisconsin, but nothing on Bryan; Atlas notes, saliently, that Bryan was “an Episcopalian, a member of the University Club, and a dedicated golfer,” who was described by a colleague as “an elegant, courtly Southern gentleman.”) Isaac Rosenfeld, Bellow’s closest childhood friend, wrote a story in which he called Bellow by the pseudonym Raskolnikov. Leader does not explore this pungent insight into Bellow’s personality. Even Bellow’s first divorce is described as primarily a quarrel over money, not a matter of passion.

What comes through most compellingly in Leader’s biography is Bellow’s unshakable confidence in his own talent, even at the earliest stages of his career. After graduation from Northwestern, he married Anita, his college sweetheart. The couple moved in to her family’s apartment, where he wrote every day in a back room. When they finally got their own place, a friend watched as Saul and Anita spontaneously whirled wet tea bags around their heads, splattering “walls, windows, curtains, rug, couch, easy chair, the desk, and the books.” But the freestylist of Augie March had not yet emerged on the page. Bellow’s first two books, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), were both recognized as the work of a writer with promise; though he would later disavow them as juvenilia, at the time of their publication he lashed out against anyone who dared to criticize them. After Diana Trilling, writing in The Nation, referred to Dangling Man as one of several recent “small novels of sterility,” Bellow remained angry at her and her husband for years. “The book is square and honest,” he wrote in a letter to his publisher. “It is probably not great, but it is not ‘small.’ ” (In a nod to Dostoevsky that reveals Bellow’s ambition, the book’s original title was “Notes of a Dangling Man.”) “Why not have, in art, the largest mind available?” he wrote in an early essay. “Why be middling with the middling subject?”

Those first two novels were sufficiently impressive to win Bellow a Guggenheim in 1948. He used the money for a sabbatical in Paris, where he fell into a state of despair over the project he had been working on, an existentialist novel called “The Crab and the Butterfly.” As he would later tell it, one day, watching water flow out of a fire hydrant, he felt something unlock within him. (Leader, who is strangely obsessed with finding similarities between Bellow’s life and Wordsworth’s, here sees an almost mystical parallel to a sudden burst of creativity that the poet experienced in Germany, which was also prompted by an image of water.) Bellow put aside hundreds of pages of his manuscript and began again. “It rushed out of me. I was turned on like a hydrant in summer. . . . All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.” In Augie March, the book that ensued, Bellow found his voice and cemented his reputation.

There are strange omissions in this purportedly exhaustive book, most of them having to do with Bellow’s role as a Jewish writer. In a long conversation with Bellow that Leader quotes in depth, Philip Roth called Augie March the first of Bellow’s novels to give voice to “the language you spoke and the stuff you heard, the American argot that you heard on the street.” This language, Roth and Bellow both recognized, was uniquely Jewish. Bellow’s achievement, as Roth saw it, was to develop an entirely new way to be a Jewish writer in America: “It wasn’t just that you were finding a way out of being a Jew; you were finding a way as a writer into being a Jew without doing what Malamud did” — which was, as Bellow rather cruelly put it, “shtetl shtick adapted to the U.S.A.” Bellow’s personal history became a launching point from which he could “spin off” into America. In an appreciation included in There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Benjamin Taylor’s thoughtfully chosen new collection of Bellow’s nonfiction, Bellow acknowledged Ben Hecht — another Jew from Chicago — as a model:

What was most marvelous was that people should have conceived of dignifying what we witnessed all about us by writing of it and that the gloom of Halsted Street, the dismal sights of Back of the Yards and the speech of immigrants should be the materials of art.

The conversation with Roth took place in 1999. But in “Starting Out in Chicago,” an essay written twenty-five years earlier, which opens There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Bellow strongly denies the influence of his Jewishness on his writing:

I thought of myself as a midwesterner and not as a Jew. I am often described as a Jewish writer; in much the same way, one might be called a Samoan astronomer or an Eskimo cellist or a Zulu Gainsborough expert. There is some oddity about it. I am a Jew, and I have written some books. I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there.

The examples are obviously strange. Does Bellow imply that he regards “Jewish writer” as a category equally unlikely as “Eskimo cellist” or “Samoan astronomer”? Presumably it would be a rare achievement to be an Eskimo cellist or Samoan astronomer or Zulu Gainsborough expert — because of circumstances, one assumes, not inherent lack of ability (although the quip has an unfortunate resonance with Bellow’s supposed earlier remark about the “Tolstoy of the Zulus”). Part of the comedy of “Eskimo cellist” or “Samoan astronomer” is that ethnicity is irrelevant to the achievement: the performance of an Eskimo cellist has nothing to do with his or her being Eskimo.

Yet being a Jew was hardly incidental to Bellow’s work. It was disingenuous for him to present himself as “a Jew [who has] written some books.” As early as his college years, when he collaborated with Rosenfeld on a hilarious Yiddish translation-cum-parody of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Bellow’s work derived much of its energy from a bold mixing of traditions: the Eastern European Jewish sensibility and the English and American literary canon. An appreciation published in 1953, the same year as Augie March, juxtaposes Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish master, with Dickens. “The best of me has formed in the jumps,” Bellow once wrote in a letter to a friend. The reference was to his physical restlessness, his constant desire to be on the move. But his literary sensibility also formed in the jumps — from Jewish culture to American to English and back again. His entire body of work — especially the famous first lines of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born” — constitutes an implicit retort to the professor who told him he wasn’t born to it. Leader declines to probe the complexities of this question, contenting himself instead with the assertion that Bellow was “adamant in resisting the label of Jewish American writer.” The essays collected by Taylor, which include Bellow’s thoughts on Hecht, Roth, Sholom Aleichem, and Abraham Cahan, as well as speeches made before the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, offer a more nuanced approach to Bellow’s thinking on the subject.

A related biographical complexity that goes largely unexamined here is Bellow’s reaction to the Holocaust. In a letter to the novelist Cynthia Ozick in 1987, he apologized that he, along with other

“Jewish Writers in America” (a repulsive category!) missed what should have been . . . the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry. We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with it.

Bellow said that in the mid-Forties — the years of Dangling Man and The Victim — he was “too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening.” Ozick has expressed legitimate skepticism about the veracity of this explanation, especially considering that when the Bellows lived in Paris, from 1948 to 1950, Anita worked at the office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, helping to reunite refugee families. “Are we to believe that the wife never imparted to the husband what she learned and witnessed and felt every day, or that, detached, he took no notice of it?” Ozick asks in a 2011 review. Leader describes Bellow as having a “preoccupation with anti-Semitism in the mid-1940s,” but his evidence is circumstantial. The Holocaust does not appear again in the biography until 1961, and then only briefly. In that year, during the throes of his second marital crisis, Bellow visited Europe and wrote to a friend that after visiting Auschwitz, he “understood that concern with my private life was childish. Before that I had forty nights of insomnia over Sondra; now I’m losing sleep over the camps, and the ghettos of Warsaw and Cracow.” After his return he wrote, “What I saw between Auschwitz and Jerusalem made a change in me.”

What was the change in Bellow, and could it have had something to do with his relationship to Judaism? Herzog, which Bellow wrote in the wake of this visit to Europe, is the most explicitly religious of his books. Leader devotes a fair amount of space to the novel, which is arguably Bellow’s greatest work. Unfortunately, much of his analysis rehashes the sordid story of Bellow’s second wife, Sondra Tschacbasov, and her affair with Jack Ludwig, a colleague of Bellow’s at Bard College. Leader has a genuine scoop here: an unpublished memoir Tschacbasov wrote shortly before her death in 2011, in which she gives her perspective on her life with Bellow and discloses the childhood sexual abuse to which her father subjected her. The memoir serves primarily to generate sympathy for Bellow: Tschacbasov comes across as self-absorbed, evasive, and defensive.

Leader sees Bellow’s achievements in Herzog as primarily mimetic: “Real life is woven into fiction almost immediately.” He calls Bellow a “famed noticer,” a master of portraying “things perfectly seen.” As a later example he cites Herzog watching Madeleine, his soon-to-be ex-wife, put on her makeup:

First she spread a layer of cream on her cheeks, rubbing it into her straight nose, her childish chin and soft throat. . . . Despite the soft rings of feminine flesh, there was already something discernibly dictatorial about that extended throat. . . . She put on a pale powder with her puff, still at the same tilting speed, as if desperate. . . . She put touches of Vaseline on her lids. She dyed the lashes with a tiny coil. . . . Still without pauses or hesitations, she put a touch of black in the outer corner of each eye, and redrew the line of her brows to make it level and earnest. Then she picked up a pair of large tailor’s shears and put them to her bangs. She seemed to have no need to measure; her image was fixed in her will. She cut as if discharging a gun.

Leader comments on this scene that although Tschacbasov claims Bellow never saw her put on her makeup, her son Adam verifies the accuracy of the description. But Leader disregards entirely the meaning of the scene in the novel. Madeleine’s makeup serves a specific purpose: a new convert, she is working at a Catholic university and is trying to appear older and more conservative. The passage from Herzog also contradicts Leader’s other descriptions of Tschacbasov playing up her youth, especially in the circle around Partisan Review, where she was working when the thirty-seven-year-old Bellow met her in 1952, when she was twenty-one.

Everything Herzog sees is filtered through his maddened, suffering, Raskolnikovian obsession with the behavior of his ex-wife and her lover, who is here called, with Bellow’s felicity for names, Valentine Gersbach. The novel finds Herzog — a once-influential professor who has left academia, with an abandoned manuscript (“eight hundred pages of chaotic argument”) in his closet — in the grip of a frenzy, holed up in his house in the Berkshires, sleeping on a naked mattress (“it was his abandoned marriage bed”), eating bread from a package and beans from a can, ignoring the rodents and owls that have infested the house, and writing unsent letters to the living and the dead: Nietzsche, Adlai Stevenson, the credit department of Marshall Field’s. If Henderson’s cry is “I want, I want, I want,” Herzog’s is “I hurt, I hurt, I hurt!” (His name embeds the pun.) The novel is a long howl of pain. Herzog is so enraged at Gersbach that he can’t admit any similarity between the two of them, not even the tears in their eyes: “At moments I dislike having a face, a nose, lips, because he has them.” And yet, even in his state of “wild internal disorder,” Herzog still finds some humor in his situation: “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next? I get laid, I take a short holiday, but very soon after I fall upon those same thorns with gratification in pain, or suffering in joy — who knows what the mixture is!”

That is a very Jewish mixture, with all the “ironic genius” of the Yiddish language: its comic inversions, its self-deprecations, its imprecations. And Moses Herzog is Bellow’s most Jewish character, speaking a language steeped in the Torah, the Hebrew language, and the Jewish condition. (Roth calls him “American literature’s Leopold Bloom.”) Looking at a card on which a psychiatrist has jotted down the characteristic traits of paranoia, Herzog is reminded of the plagues of Egypt, “ ‘DOM, SFARDEYA, KINNIM’ [blood, frogs, lice] in the Haggadah.” His mistress compares his jacket to “Joseph’s coat of stripes” — a reference to another victim of a terrible betrayal, at the hands of his brothers. His internal monologue often includes Hebrew words of prayer. And when he finally returns to his house, a “symbol of his Jewish struggle for a solid footing in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America,” the word with which he announces himself is the Hebrew hineni: Here I am.

Despite what Leader believes, hineni does not indicate Herzog’s “acceptance . . . of his situation,” and it does not appear in the Torah only when Abraham answers God’s call to demonstrate his faith by sacrificing his son. The word appears eight times, in pivotal moments in the stories of Esau, Jacob, and — yes — Moses, Herzog’s namesake. It is a declaration of being present, of being aware; it affirms one’s own existence before God. The critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, reviewing Herzog in 1964, found that “the purest moments in the novel are Hasidic affirmations of joy,” as when Herzog, shaving before an evening with his mistress, dances on the tiles of his bathroom floor. This is not the work of a writer who happens to be a Jew. It is the work of a writer who was raised in a Jewish household and educated as a Jew, who lives secularly but whose thoughts return — and not just in moments of extremity — to the religious framework that defined his childhood.

The Bellow who uses hineni at the end of Herzog cannot be found in Leader’s biography. But intimations of him have appeared elsewhere: in the volume of letters published five years ago, in the multiple collections of Bellow’s prose now available, and in a reminiscence that Leon Wieseltier, an American Jewish writer who does not resist that role, wrote on Bellow’s death. “I had never before encountered a Jewish intellectual of his generation who could say ‘spirituality’ without choking,” Wieseltier wrote. He found Bellow “category-shattering . . . a Lawrentian Jew, an impossible creature,” who combined intellectuality and vitality with a unique energy, bookish yet “flush with raw life.”

If Bellow was an impossible creature, perhaps it is equally impossible to capture such a soul within a book. Writing fifteen years ago, James Wood speculated that the “proper” biography of Bellow would be a biography of his imagination, charting the currents of his reading, his intellectual encounters, his influence. But a true biography must be an almost alchemical fusing of the imagination and the life, in all its category-shattering complexity. “The necessary premise is that a man is somehow more than his ‘characteristics,’ all the emotions, strivings, tastes, and constructions which it pleases him to call ‘My Life,’ ” Herzog tells us. “We have ground to hope that a Life is something more than such a cloud of particles, mere facticity. Go through what is comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives any light.”

is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford). Her most recent review for Harper's Magazine, "Mostpeople's Poet," appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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May 2015