The Inseparables, Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola,

Aix-en-Provence

In The Masterpiece (1886), his most autobiographical novel, Émile Zola recalls the idyllic times he spent as a youth in Aix with two like-minded romantics.

They lived in a kind of fine, romantic frenzy of high-flown verses, barrack-room ribaldry and odes poured out into the shimmering heat of the summer air. And when they found a brook and half-dozen willows to cast a patch of grey on the blinding earth they would lose all sense of time, staying there till the stars were out, acting the plays they knew by heart, booming the heroes’ parts, piping the parts of the queens and the ingenues…That was how they had lived since the time when they were fourteen, burning with enthusiasm for art and literature, isolated in their remote province amid the dreary philistinism of a small town.

Art critic John Berger says the region in which an artist passes their formative years plays an important role in the constitution of his or her vision. This was certainly the case for both the painter Paul Cézanne and the writer Émile Zola.

In their schooldays they formed a brilliant alliance and their ‘debauches of walking’ took on a mythic dimension that was to nourish their creativity for the rest of their lives.

When they met as boarders in secondary school, at the College Bourbon in Aix, Paul Cézanne was big, brutish and bad-tempered, as direct as a peasant, while Émile Zola, a year younger, was small and pale with a lisp and a hunted look. Zola said he was then only capable of ‘loving and weeping’ which made him a ripe target for bullies. The other pupils labelled him a mummy’s boy and roughed him up, until Cézanne dived in to protect him.

As Cézanne later explained to his biographer Joachim Gasquet:

Zola didn’t give a damn about anything. He dreamed. He was stubbornly unsociable – a melancholy young beggar. You know, the kind that kids detest. For no reason at all they ostracised him. And indeed that was the way our friendship started. The whole school, big boys and little, gave me a thrashing because I paid no attention to their blackballing. I defied them, I went and talked to him just the same. A fine fellow. The next day he brought me a big basket of apples. There you are – Cézanne’s apples! They date back a long time.

In all but blood, they became brothers. Thanks to his protector Zola went unmolested, although this odd couple were sneered at. ‘They’re just the OTHERRRS, Emeeloo,’ Cézanne assured Zola in his loud voice with the Provençal accent.

They offered their friendship to Jean Baptiste Baille, an easygoing if unimaginative boy, who later became an engineer. Zola was the leader of their trio, inspiring them with claims that they were poets and spiritual brothers, ‘the inseparables’, bonded in eternal friendship. He gave Cézanne a vision of a grander life than the one his father had planned for him. In his most autobiographical novel L’Ouvre (The Masterpiece) (1886), Zola describes how, despite their different temperaments and backgrounds,

they were linked suddenly and forever, carried away by secret affinities, the still vague torment of a common ambition, the awakening of a superior intelligence, in the midst of the brutal crush of the abominable dunces which beat them.

They were not outstanding students but applied themselves conscientiously; ironically it was Zola who first showed artistic promise, winning the school art prize. The College Bourbon is a forbidding building stretching along the rue Cardinale. According to Zola in The Masterpiece, it was run by ‘a terrible, a grotesque, a lamentable cavalcade of ill-natured and long-suffering figures.’ Its refectory stank of rancid fat. And the only time ‘the inseparables’ joined the ‘otherrrs’ was to strike in protest at the execrable food they were served.

‘The inseparables’ regarded themselves as outsiders, loathing the streets of the town where they pined like caged eagles. They detested the monotony of provincial life: the local papers avidly read, the endless games of dominoes, the same walks taken along the same roads. It was not for them, this dull life that would only degrade their brains.

Discovering the land

In their spare time they would roam the countryside, often disappearing for several days at a time. Unlike the other boys who played endless card games of cards in cafés, they craved fresh air and would start out at four in the mornings, waking one another with pebbles thrown at shuttered windows.

Their favourite places were the hills of Saint Marc and Sainte Baume, and the Tholonet dam which was constructed by Zola’s father. Beyond the dam stretched the sugar-loaf outline of Montagne Saint-Victoire. They would head to the river Arc in summer to swim like fishes for hours in its deep pools, and then lay stark naked on the burning earth to dry. In winter they went to the little villages and ate omelettes in the taverns. In autumn they pretended to hunt but usually ended up lying on their backs beneath a tree, noses in the air, discussing their loves and sharing their dreams. Long treks punctuated each day’s beginning and end. As Zola describes in The Masterpiece:

Their eyes moistened at the memory of these debauches of walking! They saw the white roads, endlessly, covered with a layer of dust, like a thick fall of snow. They followed them always, always, happy to hear their big shoes crack, then they cut across the fields, in red earth, loaded with iron, where they galloped again, again; and a leaden sky, not a shadow, nothing but dwarf olive trees, or almond trees with thin leaves; and, on each return, a delicious daze of fatigue, the triumphant boast of having walked even more than the last time, the delight of no longer feeling to be going, to advance only by the strength acquired, while lashing each other with some terrible troop song, which rocked them as from the bottom of a dream.

This almost pagan embrace of the great outdoors was remarkably modern. Although the boys were unaware of such developments, at roughly the same time Rousseau was sounding the call of a return to nature. In England, Hardy was naming a sense of dislocation from the land as ‘the ache of modernism’, just as Wordsworth was envisaging the poet as a priest of nature. In America in 1855 Walt Whitman began writing his rhapsodies of nature, ‘Song of the Open Road.’

The boys were passionately engaged in literature and art, which opened up their worlds. They worshipped Victor Hugo for his romantic plays, poems and novels, and for his revolutionary stand against Napoleon III. They acted out his verse dramas, Cézanne making his voice squeak as the Queen of Spain. Zola, the future champion of truth and justice, was particularly drawn to Hugo’s commitment to liberty and democracy. He encouraged the friends to take vows of poverty. Already, he was forming his attachment to themes that were to shape his life’s work.

He carried a battered book of poetry on their long treks into the countryside and read aloud to Cézanne and Baille long passages of melancholic rhapsodies from the Romantic poet, Alfred de Musset, which fuelled their adolescent fantasies.

Cézanne began taking his sketchbook, often stopping to draw whatever grabbed his attention. His father had given him his first box of colours; this was somewhat ironic, since he was desperate for his son to succeed in a respectable profession, in law or banking. But for the time being, the pencil and paints provided a peaceful preoccupation which helped calm his stormy outbursts.

Of the three ‘inseparables’, Cézanne had the least confidence. ‘Life’, he said, ‘is terrifying.’ And it would appear that this was indeed the case for him. He would always struggle with bouts of depression and self-doubt. His art dealer Ambroise Vollard said he was a man with a ‘violent and excessively sensitive nature’. He would explode with nervous rage if he was contradicted, or disagreed with another’s opinion, or sometimes for no good reason at all. In the process he might destroy one of his paintings, or insult his friends and storm off. Afterwards he would feel deeply ashamed. In between the outbursts, he was remarkably generous and kind. He seemed to be either roaring with fury or beaming with joy.

Zola was sensible beyond his years. When he was seven the death of his father had a disastrous effect on his family’s fortunes. François Zola, a civil engineer, had started to build the dam that that gave Aix its first permanent water supply (it is still in use today). But six months into its construction, he died from pleurisy. Émile then witnessed his mother being swindled out of money that should have been theirs by a number of town officials, leaving them impoverished.

The boy grew into a man who was intent on gaining recognition as a way to avenge the authorities, working ceaselessly and joylessly and obsessed with a fear of failure.

In The Masterpiece, the character Sandoz, who is based on Zola. He cries out:

When I bring forth I need forceps, and even the child always looks to me like a monster. Is it possible for anyone to be so devoid of doubt as to have absolute faith in himself?

He would toil away at the ‘endless torture’ of writing. Yet a finished novel gave him no satisfaction. He found it ‘repulsive’ as it only reminded him of the messiness and difficulty of its creation.  No wonder the wild expeditions, the freedom and the comradeship of his youth shone so brilliantly for him, those days when, as he would later write to Baille, ‘what we sought was wealth of heart and spirit’.

Partings

In 1858 Zola and his mother were forced to leave for Paris, to seek financial support from friends and family. Vast tracts of the city were in the process of being demolished at the orders of Baron Haussmann, to make way for a more ordered city. It was a dark, chaotic mess, ringing with the sounds of sledge-hammers and pick axes, and overwhelmingly depressing.

Zola spent the last years of his schooling at the Lycée Saint-Louis, where he was mocked for his provincial manners and was morbidly unhappy. He sought escape by reading Rabelais, Montaigne and George Sand. Longing for the scent of lavender and thyme, he wrote desperately homesick letters to Cézanne and Baille back in Aix, who were studying for their final matriculation and waiting impatiently for the summer, hoping Zola would join them.

The boys exchanged confidences. Baille wrote to Zola about an upset with Cézanne and Zola, ever the peacemaker, replied:

When he hurts you, you must not blame his heart, but rather the evil demon that beclouds his thought. He has a heart of gold and is a friend who is able to understand us, being just as mad as we, and just as much a dreamer.

Cézanne confessed to Zola his crush on

the woman I spoke to you about. I don’t know who she is. I see her sometimes passing in the street when on my way to my monotonous college. I have reached the stage of heaving sighs, but sighs that do not externally betray themselves. They are mental sighs.

During the summers of 1858 and 1859, Zola returned to Aix for four months of holidays, and ‘the inseparables’ resumed their rambles, alighting on peaceful wooded paths in early morning, ripe with the promise of fresh adventure.

Struggles

Outside school hours Cézanne was increasingly absorbed by the courses in painting and drawing in which he enrolled and was beginning to show promise. He confided to his mother his hopes for an artistic future and she gave him every encouragement. But after he graduated from college, the pressure from his father was intense.

Monsieur Cézanne had dragged himself up from abject poverty, to become co-owner of a successful bank in the town. He was as obsessed with making money as his son was fond of frittering it away, as unsentimental and ordered as his son was romantic and chaotic. He would tell Paul: ‘Young man, young man, think of the future. With genius you die, with the money you live!’ Zola noted that the only man his friend ever feared was his father. When he put his foot down, Cézanne registered with the Law Faculty at Aix in 1858. He passed the first exam without difficulty but he loathed it, and dreamed of becoming a painter and joining Zola in Paris.

Zola was not faring well either. A serious bout of encephalitis had put paid to his hopes of passing the baccalaureate examination. Made anxious by his mother’s dire financial situation, he fell to pieces on the second attempt, and was given a humiliating zero for literature. He wrote to Paul: ‘I am an ignoramus!’ By this stage, he and his mother were living in a freezing attic. A family friend found him a clerical position at the customs office. ‘I am destined to rot on the straw of an office chair’, he wrote to Cézanne. But after a description of the dreariness of his days, he provided a picture of what happened after he left the office:

I shake myself like a wet bird, light my pipe, breathe, live. I turn over in my mind long poems, long dramas, long novels. I wait for summer that I might find an outlet for my creative spirit.

His bravely optimistic letters both stimulated and terrified Cézanne. ‘I have few illusions, Paul,’ he wrote. ‘I know I can only stammer. But I’ll find a way.’

For the next two years, Zola kept the possibility alive for Cézanne of breaking away and joining him in Paris. In letter after letter, he would ask him when would he find the courage to confront his father? When would he come to Paris? He tried multiple approaches in a bid to extricate his friend from his entrapment.

I tell myself that, whatever our situations may be, we’ll hold fast to the same sentiments, and that consoles me…I feel a certain pride in having understood you, in having appreciated your true value. Let’s have done with the wicked and the jealous; as the majority of human beings are stupid, the scoffer won’t be on our side, but what matter, if it gives you as much joy to clasp my hand as it does me to clasp yours.

Paris

Cézanne was never able to oppose his father directly, partly because he doubted his talent. But he was tenacious, and he usually wore him down in a process of attrition. Monsieur Cézanne could see the boy was terribly unhappy, and his wife told him the situation could not continue. He finally agreed to let his son have a small allowance and in 1861, Cézanne arrived in Paris. He rushed to see Zola first thing, who wrote to Baille:

I’ve seen Paul!!! I’ve seen Paul: do you realise that? Do you comprehend the melody contained in those words?

Yet the friends were kept apart by their different routines. Cézanne was exhausted by hours and hours of painting and had no energy to go out in the evenings. He spent mornings at a drawing school, the Academie Suisse, and the rest of the day in the studio of a fellow art student, Villevielle. When they did meet, Cézanne seemed withdrawn and distracted. Without their constant flow of letters, the friends lost contact with their inner lives.

Cézanne hated ‘black muddy smoky’ Paris and the teaching at the art school seemed mediocre. He felt awkward and lonely, overwhelmed by the city’s size. Even its wine was ‘detestable’. A few weeks after arriving he wrote to a friend back home:

I thought that by leaving Aix I’d leave far behind me the boredom that pursued me. All I’ve done is to change place, and the boredom has followed me. I’ve left my parents, friends, some of my habits: that’s all…I’ve seen, it’s naïve to mention, the Louvre and the Luxembourg and Versailles…it’s upsetting, swankily impressive, shattering.  

Soon he was heading back to Aix and Zola was writing to Baille:

To convince Cézanne of anything is like wanting to persuade the towers of Notre Dame to dance a quadrille . . . he is made from one solid, immutable lump . . .  

On Cézanne’s return to Aix, his father installed him in his bank, but he continued painting in his spare time. The novelty of being back home soon wore off. Banking was as loathsome as the law and he came to understand that he needed both places: Paris for his studies and Provence for his wellbeing.

Zola had secured a packing job at the Librarie Hachette at a salary that allowed just enough to eat a little better, buy a frock coat and move into quieter, cleaner lodgings. His zeal and hard work attracted the attention of the publisher Hachette, who gave him his first publishing opportunity and from here he began his meteoric rise. Zola did not give up on his friend. His enthusiasm was unwavering. He helped lure Cézanne back to Paris a second time, and this is when he met the vitally important artistic mentors, Pissarro, Renoir and Monet.

Endings

As they grew older, misunderstandings and differences cooled their friendship. Zola was a political animal, with a nose for trends, for which way the wind was blowing. He was interested in the social transformations taking place at the time, and as Balzac  had done earlier that century, he brilliantly documented the emergence of a new mass society. He grew shrewd, very wealthy, more outwardly self-possessed (although like Cézanne he would always be crippled by self-doubt). Paris became his home, his world. He cast aside his youthful vow of poverty and fell for bourgeois comforts.

Cézanne could not give a toss about politics or social change, and Zola’s bourgeois ways disappointed him. In Claude’s Confession, Zola responded to his friend’s disappointment:

You are irritated by my lack of courage, you accuse me of coveting velvet and bronze, of not accepting the holy poverty of the poet. Alas! I love broad curtains, candelabra, marble upon which the chisel has left the impress of its powerful caresses. I love everything that shines, everything that has beauty, grace and richness.

Never receiving the acclaim that he too craved, Cézanne grew increasingly ‘shuddering and tormented’, and remained incurably bohemian. He was never at ease in Paris. Aix remained his spiritual home. Zola despaired at his friend’s shabby clothes, his outbursts, his stubbornly provincial manners.

The death knell for their friendship occurred after Zola used Cézanne as the main model for Claude Lantier, the disturbed artist in his novel The Masterpiece, the 14th of his Les Rougon-Macquart series. In the course of the novel, Lantier’s paintings are painfully rejected, he becomes unhinged, and he commits suicide. Cézanne wrote a polite note, thanking Zola for his complimentary copy of the novel, and never spoke to him again. He told Vollard:

You can’t ask a man to talk sensibly about the art of painting if he simply doesn’t know anything about it. But by God, how can he dare to say that a painter is done because he has painted one bad picture? When a picture isn’t realised, you pitch it in the fire and start another one.

There is a final chapter to that friendship covered in this story here.

Lasting Impressions

Although their friendship did not last, their youthful experience of wild abandon in the land of Provence continued to sustain them and inspire their work.

Zola would draw from these memories and reproduce them most poignantly in The Masterpiece and in his first novel, Claude’s Confession (1865). And as his biographer F.W.J. Hemmings points out, the time spent with Cézanne and his friends, the fellow artists Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, taught him to see with a painter’s eye. He became alert to the visual power of the image in his writing, taking pains to give the reader a precise picture of a place, its mood and atmosphere, right down to the direction of the light. It has often been said that his novels were forerunners to the cinema.

Cézanne benefitted most from their early intimate contact with nature. Their childhood journeys burned in him and fuelled his art for the rest of his life. The days spent swimming in the river beneath the shade of a tree stayed with him as emblematic of comradeship and a sense of being almost spiritually at one with others in a way he never experienced as an adult. In a letter to Zola he wrote:

Do you remember how that pine tree standing beside the Arc tossed its hirsute head over the abyss yawning at its feet – that pine whose foliage sheltered our bodies from the fierceness of the sun? Ah, may the gods preserve it from the dread strokes of the woodsman’s axe!

He reproduced this memory repeatedly in a succession of paintings of bathers.

The region surrounding Aix-en-Provence was Cezanne’s country. Here, he was at home as nowhere else and he struggled to be a worthy interpreter in paint of its light, space and colour:

Everything vanishes, falls apart, doesn’t it? Nature is always the same but nothing in her that appears to us lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence, along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us a taste of her eternity.

Maintaining the lust of ‘the inseparables’ for fresh air, he claimed that paintings created indoors were never equal to those created en plein air. ‘I go to the countryside every day’, he said, ‘the views are beautiful and I thus spend my time more agreeably here than anywhere else.’

In the process of painting, he said,

The land becomes a human, becomes a thinking, living being within me. I become one with my picture…we merge in an iridescent chaos.

Music

Aequilibrium, Medieval Tune, Hurdy-Gurdy with Organ, Andrey Vinogradov, composition, hurdy gurdy arrangement

I was unable to discover Zola’s musical preferences. By all accounts Cézanne was not gifted musically and took little interest in music lessons. But they both mastered enough to take part in the school band, Cézanne on the cornet and Zola the clarinet. According to Zola, one night while the friends were serenading a young woman under her window, they made such a ‘frightful’ noise that her ‘revolted parents’ emptied the family’s water pots on them.

Vollard said that, although not particularly drawn to music, Cézanne had a sentimental attachment to the hurdy gurdy, so I have chosen this beautiful piece.

Andrey Vinogradov plays a modern hurdy-gurdy (Viola) crafted by Wolfgang Weichselbaumer. He performs a mix of ethnic tunes (Russian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Greek, Austrian), contemporary classical music, jazz improvisations and authentic Russian sacred chants. You can hear more on his YouTube channel.

Connections

The realist writing of Émile Zola grabbed the attention of Thomas Hardy, who was looking for ways in which to deepen his work as discussed here.

And sixty years after Cézanne had first arrived in Paris, where he spent hours studying the painters he admired in the Louvre (in particular Diego Velázquez and Caravaggio), a young Ernest Hemingway was drawn to study Cézanne’s work at the Musée Luxembourg. Like Zola, he learned a visual language from Cézanne that could be used in his writing. In A Moveable Feast he wrote:

If I walked down by different streets to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the afternoon I could walk through the gardens and then go to the Musée du Luxembourg where the great paintings were that have now mostly been transferred to the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume. I went there nearly every day for the Cézannes and to see the Manets and the Monets and the other Impressionists that I had first come to know about in the Art Institute at Chicago. I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.

When the light faded, he would visit his friend and mentor Gertrude Stein in her home nearby. She had a number of Cézannes hanging on her walls and Hemingway was particularly taken with a watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Monika Gehlawat suggests that he learned to visually structure his short stories by observing the way in which Cézanne used bare space to represent the brightest areas of the painting. This had the effect of pulling the onlooker closer into this part of the landscape. Hemingway replicated this approach in his short story ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, by taking away all perspectives other than Nick’s sensory focus. This magnifies him, bringing what is essential into focus.

Notes

I took most of the landscape pictures near Mont Sainte-Victoire, many through a train or bus window. It was just as Vollard describes: ‘the tracks of the railroad seemed to run straight through the canvases of Cézanne.’ Here are the various types of pine trees, the red soil, white rock and olive groves, bathed in a blaze of light that seems to drain the colour out of everything in the heat of the day. For me this landscape also symbolises the rare and precious alliance between Zola and Cézanne. How can you not be moved by such a friendship? The protection first offered to a bullied boy and the shared pagan pleasures and adventures that followed. The bullied boy then working so hard to dilute the big lad’s fear of moving beyond his father’s orbit, offering him his hand, even though he too was gripped with self-doubt and fear. What would Cézanne have become without Zola keeping him steadfast to his dreams and ambition? A minor artist perhaps, or just an embittered bank clerk? And in turn, what sort of writer would Zola have become without his artist’s eye? The elegant and beautiful Aix-en-Provence was spared the industrialisation that occurred in Marseille, and remains much the same as in Cézanne and Zola’s day. Zola had little time for the town, retaining his outrage that here his mother had been stripped of her rightful assets from her husband’s business. To him it was just an ‘old capital city, living on its memories, with nothing to recommend it but for the beauty of its skies.’ But Cézanne loved his native city with a passion (even though he thought most of its citizens were barbarians). Although he had a pioneering influence on Modern Art, he railed against change. As an old man he was disgusted by the improvements to the old school that he had loathed in his youth. His young biographer Gasquet recalled him standing in front of the College Bourbon in a rage, shouting: The pigs! Look what they’ve done to our old school! We are living under the thumb of the bureaucrats. It’s the kingdom of the engineers, the republic of straight lines. Tell me, is there a single straight line in nature?They make everything conform to rule, the city as well as the country. Where is Aix, my old Aix of Zola and Baille, the fine streets in the old suburbs, the grass between the cobblestones, the oil lamps? Yes, oil lamps instead of your crude electricity that destroys mystery, while our old lamps gilded it, warmed it, brought it to life a la Rembrandt. It would seem that he became exactly the type of old Provençal stick in the mud that had so appalled ‘the inseparables’ in their youth… but he had also become a genius. We will return to Aix, to Cézanne’s studio and to the mountain that he painted, another time.

Weblinks

Read Zola’s The Masterpiece online on Project Gutenberg.

Cézanne and Zola’s friendship is the focus of this 2017 biopic Cezanne et Moi.

A review of the film.

A documentary about Cézanne.

An article about Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus affair, and his subsequent flight to London.

Sainte-Baume is a region I missed that was frequented by ‘the inseparables’. It looks spectacular.

Details here about places linked to Cézanne which can be visited. Alas, his family home, the Bastide du Jas de Bouffan was closed for renovation while I was there.

The Tourism office of Aix-en-Provence.

Sources:

Callow, Philip. Lost Earth: A Life of Cezanne, Ivan R Dee, 1995

Gehlawat, Monika. Painterly Ambitions: ‘Hemingway, Cezanne, and the Short Story’, Open Edition, Vol 49, Autumn 2007

Hemmings, FWJ. The Life and Times of Emile Zola, Scribner, 1977

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast, (The Restored Edition), Penguin, 2009

Sheen, Barbara. Paul Cezanne, Lucent Books, 2013

Swinglehurst, Edmund. The Life and Works of Cezanne, Paragon Books, 1994

Vollard, Ambroise. Cezanne, Dover, 1984

Zola, Emile. The Masterpiece, Oxford University Press, 1999

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  1. Paula Ashworth on

    Jo,
    The long delay in responding to this is not due to a lack of enjoyment; on the contrary it is due to a surfeit!!! I wanted to read it more than once (at leisure) and I wanted time to view/listen to the various links. Once again you have enlightened me! This time about the friendship between Zola and Cezanne. I’d no idea… and I loved reading of roaming the countryside and their shared “pagan pleasures” in its beauty. The thread between that and Cezanne’s frequent paintings of bathers has cast a new appreciation of his many variations of that scene – and I loved reading that painting plein air in Provence brought him to the Nirvana like state of becoming at one with his picture. Even though not a painter (!) I can totally identify with the gift of that magic condition when alone in the countryside of Provence, or indeed other places alone and far away from the madding crowd:-) From your descriptions it seems that Cezanne was a manic depressive and, also, no doubt to his fury, had something of an inferiority complex in more sophisticated company, disguised by expressing strong disapproval of Zola’s transformation and milieu. My small Suffolk library now has a new request: Zola’s “The Masterpiece”. Another… ‘thank you’, Jo.

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