Time Is of the Essence

Essay for Bukker Tilibul The Online Journal of Writing and. Practice-led Research Swinburne University


The Classics are books that exert a particular influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious (Calvino 1997:127)


A personal perspective

What are the core elements a writer grapples with when writing fiction? This question was prompted after several years of hand-building with clay. Clays have various properties which affect how they perform, dry and fire. Working directly with my hands reinforced my awareness of their qualities; their plasticity, their colour, their absorption and retention of water, their speed of drying, their coarseness and the quality of the grog within them. All of these qualities affect the development of a form, the rendering of the surface and the fired result. I was struck by the importance of understanding what I am calling its materialityand this led me to ask, what is the materiality of fiction writing? Language was my immediate response, but working with clay had made me very conscious of something else, time. When working with clay, time is of the essence. Attending to a work ‘in time’ is needed if one wishes to realize a clay’s possibilities. It occurred to me that negotiating time is also of the essence when writing fiction. It is reflected in so many aspects, I suggest, that like language, it is a core component in the materiality of writing.

Time can be considered in both individual and communal contexts. We organize our lives around communal time which has been established though the rhythms of our solar system. We agree to meet at 10.00 a.m.. I attend a class at 6.00 pm. We book tickets ahead for flights, concerts or poetry readings. We live in a global world where universally accepted notions of time determine much of our lives although there are community differences based on cultural beliefs. In contrast, our individual experience of time and our engagement with it varies. We talk of time passing quickly and slowly. Memory also plays a role as it interrupts and/or augments a current focus. Time is often lost or stretched. It also needs to be managed or, rather, I need to manage myself within established time frameworks. For me, personal time often seems conflict with communal time; I underestimate the time needed to reach deadlines.

Time, and the human experience of it, has been explored by many writers, both literary and philosophical. One of the fundamental problems we have when describing the experience of time is evident in the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets(1965:13) which opens with his reflection on the collision of time past, present and future.

Prose explorations of the human experience of time were also undertaken by James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Joyce in his novel, Ulysses, used a limited time frame to explore ‘both actual time and … [its] context within a larger historical framework’ (Smith 2011:1). Marcel Proust ‘devoted his life to unravelling the mystery of time. … He focuses on how we live, and communicates a way of living in time’ (Lowen 2014) in his monumental work, Remembrance of Things Past. From a philosophical perspective, Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception(2008) argues that it is

… through time that being is conceived, because it is through the relations of time-subject and time-object that we are able to understand those obtaining between subject and world. Let us apply to those problems we began with the idea of subjectivity as temporality (2008:500).

He further posits that ‘… the future, past and the present are linked together in the movement of temporalization’ (2008:501). Philosopher, Michelle Boulous Walker, in her article ‘Slow Reading’(2014), argues that there is a relationship between reading and thinking and that slow reading is needed to enable the necessary work of thinking; taking the time to dwell within the writing is important.

From a more practical viewpoint, Beth Hill in her short essay ‘Marking Time with the Viewpoint of Character’in The Editor’s Blogsuggests:

Showing the passage of time is one of the easiest ways of dealing with setting and moving a story forward … without adequate time markers, readers may be lost …. References to time … are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction (2014).

This practical blog offers numerous ways of doing this, but her suggestions, I noted, refer to communal time. I question whether this is the only way to engage the reader.

There are many descriptive passages in fictional works which reference communal time or detail time and place but do not necessarily occupy what I am calling ‘narrative time’: that is the duration of time over which the story takes place. For example, when two of the characters in The Luminaries, Frost and Mannering, are discussing the salting of a gold claim, Frost exclaims, ‘You were salting your own land!’. Mannering’s reply is immediate, ‘I’m not the first man to want to make a profit, and I won’t be the last’ (Catton 2014:190- 191). However, in between the two statements, there is a long description of Frost’s character. Yes, it is of interest. Yes, it gives us psychological insight into Frost but it occupies the reader’s time rather than narrative time. Such passages can also occupy narrative time as well as serve other purposes such as giving the reader insight into the style of writer.

I, too,  would like to explore the integration of time into a text from a practical viewpoint by considering aspects of the writing of Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt in their award winning texts: The Goldfinch(Tartt 2014) and The Luminaries(Catton, 2013). When considering these, I have occasionally drawn upon the ideas of Merleau-Ponty (2008).

Catton expresses her interest in time directly: ‘But onward also rolls the outer sphere ─ boundless present, which contains the bounded past’ (2013).  However, her interest is embedded, I would argue, in terms of communal time and personal time as it must be if we accept Merleau-Ponty’s proposition of subjectivity as temporality:

It was late in the afternoon when Pritchard returned to his drug hall on Collingwood-street, but he felt that it ought to be much later ─ that night ought to be falling, to make sense of the exhaustion that he felt. He entered by way of the shop, and spent a foolish intense moment straightening the razor-strops with the corners of the shelves, and tidying the bottles so that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the lip of the display cabinet ─ but suddenly he couldn’t bear himself. He set a card in the shop window informing callers to return on Monday, locked the door, and retired to his laboratory (Catton 2013:104).

In this extract, I see time embedded in numerous ways: the sequential construction of the narrative ─ reflected in the sequencing of Pritchard’s actions; the description of his state of being ─ ‘he felt it ought to be much later’; Pritchard’s character ─ ‘he spent a foolish intense moment straightening the razor-strops’; the language ─ ‘afternoon’, ‘Monday’, ‘night…falling’; the sequential structure of the paragraph; the consistent use of the past tense, that is, the grammar. The reader’s time is also taken up with the description of Pritchard’s actions and the scene ─ the ‘bottles …stood should-to-shoulder against the list of the display cabinet’. Time permeates this paragraph.

Where and how can a narrative turn on and exist in time in addition to those mentioned above? Through the extended moment based in memory; through the implied future of an ellipses ‘…’ ; through an in-the-present-moment of dialogue where the reader is placed in the immediate time of speaking; through the narrative voice which may locate the reader historically, for example, in the fifteenth century; through the paragraph/section/chapter breaks/ and their labelling which may establish the structure of a work; through the juxtaposition of events in time to create tension; through the specific references which mark time; through the voice of the writer which in lingering on the lace detail of a dress may reflect their personal approach to the relationship between the passing of time, an object and the senses; through description in general which both locates the reader in time and place in the narrative and brings into language that which we grasp in a moment with our senses.

One of the tasks of the writer is to bring into language the imagined which often depends on researched knowledge and the experiential drawn from body’s sensory system. Through descriptive passages a cluster of experiences and observations related to the sensed are made real in the mind of the reader. As two of Catton’s characters, Frost and Mannering are travelling up-river, Catton’s narrator describes the scene:

The Hokita River threads its way over gravel flats, the stones of which were uniformly round and worn. The banks of the river were fringed darkly with scrub, the foliage made still darker by the rain (2014:207).

The reader slips into the narrator’s shoes and absorbs the details which establish the historical and geographical context of the narrative.

I am proposing that time is a material component when writing fiction. What do others say? How important is an understanding of it to those giving writers advice about the process of writing? A brief survey of the chapter headings of several books gives a glimpse. I would like to refer, initially, to Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book(1990) and think of the chapter headings as her perception of the materiality of fiction writing. They are as follows; Getting started, Sorting through, Character, Point of view, Voice,  Dialogue, Description, Design, Revision and Submitting a manuscript (1990:vii-viii).

Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer(2006)clusters her thoughts into the following chapters; Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration (point of view), Character, Dialogue, Details, Gesture, Learning from Character, Reading for Courage, Books to be Read Immediately.

Similarly, John Mullan in How Novels Work(2006), through a detailed discussion of many novels, draws his ideas together thus; Beginning, Narrating, People, Genre, Voices, Structure, Detail, Style, Device. Literariness, Ending.  He does refer specifically to time in his section on chronology which offers well-developed, explanatory examples drawn from the writing of Zadie Smith and Don DeLillo.

Having opened this Pandora’s Box, and using some of the common chapter headings noted above as a loose guide, I would like to now explore how time is relevant to them.


Let me begin with Mullan and his discussion of Zadie Smith. Mullan allows us to understand the function and effects of her strategy of locating the reader in clearly stated chronological time, a strategy also employed by Catton. Such narratives, he suggests ‘move in jumps, crossing gaps of time’ (2006:163), a structure that allows the writer to move backwards and forwards across time. The condensation of time is also enabled. Mullan notes that chronological time can also be reversed as it is in Don Delillo”s Underworld. In this novel, the use of an epilogue also allows a move forward in time (2006:61). Mullan discusses the pros and cons of this strategy: a loss of ‘narrative impetus’; an undermining of a sense of character development. However, there is a sense of wonder as the reader travels back in time and gains a historical perspective on their initial understanding of the characters.

Donna Tartt, uses a circular motion. In a first-person, twenty-seven year old voice, Theo Decker, moves quickly from the present to the death of his mother when he was thirteen, the ‘Before and After’ landmark in his life. Tartt, then, brings the reader back to the present at the conclusion of the novel when Theo reveals he has kept notebooks for years with his mother in mind as the reader. His meeting with several characters are the other landmarks and these mark the structure of the novel rather than dates. Large blocks of time are skimmed over but Theo’s does reflect and significant snippets of the past re-enter the narrative creating the emotional tension that drives the narrative forward. Large sections of dialogue keep the reader in the present moment of his remembered story.

On the other hand, Catton takes the reader on an oscillating journey that travels forwards then backwards: in the forward moving passages there are many backwards looping sojourns. An astrological chart at the beginning of Part One suggests a circular movement, but dates, which form the larger section headings, forewarn that the latter half of the novel predates the earlier sections.  The Luminariesis essentially temporal as the past and present are welded together. Tension is created as the momentum of this historical who-done-it is constantly interrupted by vignettes that take us back into earlier events that give insight into each character.

In both novels, the traversing of time creates tension, stimulates the reader’s interest, accommodates two complex plots and enables character development although I did find some of the earlier vignettes in The Luminariestedious.

The narrative structure of a novel will determine the referencing to time. In The Luminariesthe backward looping structure does mean that time markers are needed so that the reader can follow the forward progression of the novel. An example this can be found in this passage: Quee Long was …talking to ‘Sook Yongheng … who had sold Anna Wetherell the lump of opium by which she had so nearly perished, two weeks prior to the present day’ (Catton 2013:260).

Point of View/Focalization

I would now like to turn to point of view, or focalization (Porter Abbott, 2002), where I will consider how point of view can establish the reader’s relationship to time and place in the novel. Francine Prose (2006) details the degrees of intimacy and distance first, second, and third-person points of view can establish with the reader. When establishing a point of view, the writer scopes what the narrator can know and their location in time and place. We as readers, await the narrator’s call. The writer provides, through the narrator’s point of view, the continuity in the narrative. Each narrator has a personal history, mode of speech and view of the world that threads throughout and binds the narrative. The narrative voice also affects the pace and tone of the novel.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt‘s first-person narration allows the reader to live in Theo’s head. Narrative time co-exists with the reader’s time as it does when reading dialogue. The following extract gives a good sense of the particularly fast pace of this novel:

Momentum spun me out of the restaurant so fast I hardly noticed where I was going; but as soon as I was three or four blocks away I began to shake so violently that I had to stop in the grimy little park just south of Canal Street and sit on a bench, hyperventilating, head between my knees, the armpits of my Turnbull and Asser suit drenched with sweat, looking (I knew, to the surly Jamaican nannies, the old Italians fanning themselves with newspaper and eyeing me suspiciously) like some coke-out junior-trader who’d pressed the wrong button and lost ten million (Tartt 2014:548).

The informality and immediacy of the voice is evident as is the intimacy one feels as a reader. Theo has hardly stood still: we have crossed both time and space in this extract.

The pace is much slower in The Luminaries.A heavier third-person point of view establishes a sense of distance between the reader and characters. The reader is a removed observer:

As Frost and Mannering stepped out of the Prince of Wales Opera House, tugging down their hats against the rain, Thomas Balfour was turning into Weld-street, some three blocks to the south. Balfour had spent the last hour and a half at the Deutsches Gasthous on Camp-street, where a pile of sauerkraut, sausage, and brown gravy, on a seat before an open fire, and a period of uninterrupted contemplation had help to refocus his mind upon Alistair Lauderback’s affairs. He quit the Gaasthous refreshed, and made immediately for the office of the West Coast Times(Caton 2013:194).

The reader is located in a time and place far from the present.

In both cases, there is detailing of a moment in a character’s life, but there are also differences. Catton has traversed time and space to shift the reader’s attention to another character in the second sentence of the paragraph ─ we can do this in fiction writing ─ and again, in a single sentence, has moved us from a street, into an eating house, and into the character’s mind. An hour or so has passed in narrative time, but the reader has experienced only a couple of seconds.

Point of view is closely associated to voice. A writer may use a particular point of view which distinguishes the writer and therefore also the writer’s voice. However, voice is ‘the sensibility through which we hear the narrative (Porter Abbott 2002:197) and it is to voice, in this sense, I would now like to turn.


In terms of the writer’s voice, I believe that each writer negotiates and integrates time through their chosen point of view in an individual way. I am arguing that the writer’s sense of time, like their research, experiences and imagination, is deeply personal.

Francine Prose discusses how she found a successful voice, one that she was happy with, by determining a defined audience for her narrator. She notes how the narrative voice can be a structural technique such as that of Nelly in Emily Brontë’s WutheringHeights. In this fantastical story, Nelly’s voice ‘helps … explain some complex issues of genealogy and inheritance, and glide across the slips in time that propel the plot forward’(Prose, 2007:88).

Likewise, Tartt’s Theo permits a similar slipping. Locating the major part of the narrative in the past allows Tartt to recount Theo’s past with all its vivid details and associated feelings in an adult voice. Only the dialogue takes us directly into his younger voice. Theo is intelligent, and it is this that gives weight to his memories and establishes an emotional engagement with the reader:

My shoes. It was interesting how I’d never really looked at my shoes. The toe scuffs. The frayed laces. We’ll go to Bloomingdale’s Saturday and buy you a new pair. But that never happened (Tartt 2013: 141).

As a reader I understand and share his ironical expression of pain when he narrates, ‘But that never happened’ because of the degree of intimacy Tartt establishes between the reader and Theo. As I read the book, I lived in Theo’s shoes.


Reflecting on how time is used in the development of a character led me to the following which I think is self evident: an engaged reader wants to know happens to a character over time. A character may be developed over time through dialogue, interior monologues, description, plot and responses to events. Changes in characters or tensions created through a lack of change as in the ‘essential flaw’ model are well known. All take place over time. When reading The Goldfinchand The Luminaries, I expected the writers to fulfil the promise of the interest they raised in the characters at the beginning of the novels (although I say this while recognizing that character is not the only sustaining element in a novel) by letting me into the character’s worlds over a period of time. I want to be part of their past and future. As a reader/voyeur I am driven to travel with them in  time.


Dialogue is used extensively in The Goldfinch. It enables the reader to live in the present moment of Theo Deccer’s extant and remembered world. In this extract he is talking to his friend Boris:

‘… your Dad did that.’

‘Is nothing,’ mumbled Boris, turning his head sideways so he could wedge the whole corn chip in. ‘He broke one of my ribs once.’

After a long pause, and because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I said: ‘A broken rib’s not that serious.’

‘No, but it hurt. This one,’ he said, pulling up his shirt and pointing it out to me.

‘I thought he was going to kill you.’

He bumped his shoulder against mine. ‘Ah, I provoked him on purpose…’ (2014::310).

It is often through dialogue that we come to understand and know the history and values of Tartt’s characters. This makes The Goldfincha fast read. Of course there are long descriptive passages but the narrative often unfolds within the dialogue. The development of the characters is also embedded and reflected in linguistic aspects of the dialogue. Boris has an accent which is created through irregular syntax:

‘Ah, I provoked him on purpose. Answered back. So you could Popchik out of there. Look, is fine,’ he said condescendingly, when I kept on looking at him. ‘Last night he was frothing at mouth but he will be sorry when he sees me’ (2014:310).

In contrast, although we are told one of the characters in The Luminariesis French, there are no syntactic adjustments to the spoken language. Catton’s approach is different. In the passages between spoken exchanges, Catton expands time beyond the present moment of the dialogue taking the reader into detailed descriptions of place, a character’s past or thoughts. In this way, the present moment of the narrative collapses into the past or reflections and coexists with the present. This mirrors our experience of time. We carry the past within us and dip into it conversationally and reflectively.

Dialogue may also serve another function. Dialogue can create a pause in the action of a developing plot.


As I was researching, I came across a reference to Granta, the English publication of contemporary writing. Featured on the Grantaweb-site was a conversation between Dianne Cook and Sam Lipsyte, about the underlying purpose of writing. Lipsyte is quoted as saying:

When I’m writing on a good day, attending to the sentences, the paragraphs, the rhythm of the prose, the tonal integrity of the piece (story, novel, essay), I’m not thinking about the body of my work(2014).

We speak and write with rhythms, accents and tones that depend on timing. Un-beckoned, a sotto vocecensors my writing and draws together the combination of sounds and associated meanings that characterize my writing. Like Lipsyte, I attend to them as I write and edit my work.

However, there are other ways in which time is embedded in language. English has numerous words such as the ambiguously time-laden ‘presently’, ‘shortly’ and ‘periodically: ‘Mannering paid the fare and presently he and Frost were sitting in the stern of a painted dinghy’(Catton 2014:208); ‘Frost, who was prone to seasickness, did not move at all, except to reach up periodically and wipe away the drips …’(Catton 2014:207). Many English adverbs reference time: slowly, quickly and rapidly.  English also has a number of adverbs that introduce time-referenced subordinate clauses: once, since, after, before, until, when, while, as soon as.  A number of ingclauses express movement in time: ‘Nearingthe entrance, I shook hand with …’ (Quirk & Greenbaum 1990:322-3). It seems self-evident to state that tenses are an expression of time and I refer those interested to Randolph Quirk and Sydney Greenbaum’s A University Grammar of English (1990)for usage and explanation.

Writing for readers

Time is negotiated within the context of trends, fashions and what has already been written. Italo Calvino agues that books are written for imagined readers (1997) and it is within this sense that I suggest the novel offers temporalities outside the readers’ lived experience. Merleau-Ponty suggests that, when interweaving with the other,‘two temporalities are not mutually exclusive’(2008:503). He writes that as his living present opens onto temporalities outside his lived experience he is able to acquire a’ social horizon’, with the result that his ‘world is expanded into the dimensions of that collected history that his private existence takes up and carries forward’ (2008:503). In this sense, writers are creating other worlds in other times and places which become intimately known by the reader and understood through their personal inscriptions.

As the reader’s time is consumed when reading, their sense of time slips into the narrative time of the text. Hill (2013, outlines a number of ‘shoulds’ on the writing of time in fictional narratives. She justifies her recommendations by referring to the reader’s need to understand where characters are located in time although, for me, her suggestions are biased towards successful publication.

There are writers who play with time and stretch the reader by obscuring time markers or sequencing narratives out of chronological order. A pastiche or collage approach, when fragments are juxtaposed without a recognizable chronology, can also be challenging. However, readers, I believe, are able to negotiate implied time.

Process ─ a reflection

One morning during the writing of this article, I was working on a small ceramic piece made out of white raku paper clay. This clay does not like a lot of added water. It contains a lot of grog so working with it can be difficult. I was inscribing a small globe with the word inscribe. I wanted to contrast the coarser clay of the inscriptions with the polished surface. This could only be done by working with the clay when it was sufficiently hard to be inscribed without changing the globe’s shape and sufficiently soft to be burnished. I attended to it daily, polishing its surface and the edges of the inscriptions again and again so that it would resemble the ancient markings of the Southern Mesopotamian (old Babylonia 1849-1843 BC) cuneiform barrel I had seen at MONA (The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart) with week before.

My conscious attention to the state of the clay reflected how this piece remained in unconscious focus. Similarly when writing, the text hovers in my unconscious as I live out my daily life until something, potentially relevant, catches my attention. I need paper urgently to note the ideas before they dissolve. Clay seems so concrete in comparison.

In two different ways, I have been bringing something into being: a ceramic form, an article on time. Coincidentally, the text on the cuneiform barrel was a first-person celebration of the redirection of the Tigris-Euphrates River – a self-conscious act like that of my inscription on my globe. Of course this is a construction of meaning out of coincidence just as a novel is a construction. And it is to the process of this construction that I now wish to turn.

As a writer, I assume the reader wants a structured world where, like my wish to construct a sensible narrative of my life, the world does make sense. If we think of subjectivity as Merleau-Ponty does, as an experience of temporality then it is inevitably part of the writing process and product. I seek intentionality, set about actions which will trace out in advance the style of things to come ─ fulfilling the planned ─ but their realization comes with construction and reflection where the lived experience of the present is dovetailed into the past and future. As Merleau-Ponty wrote:

When I call up a remote past, I reopen time, and carry myself back to a moment in which it still had before it a future horizon now closed, and horizon of the immediate past which is today remote …  It is here that we see a future sliding into the present and on into the past (2008:483).

For the novelist, there is the task of unpacking and making sense of this slippage. While the text may reflect some evidence of this sense of presence, as in Tartt’s dialogue, it must nevertheless contain all the certainties of a planned life even when the writing seems spontaneous or disorganised. Of course James Joyce in Ulyssesdid write to hold the reader in the present moment but that is what makes it a difficult read. The lines of intentionality in the realization of most narratives are laid out in time and the consequences played out by the characters in a reader’s world, a world imagined yet real to the writer at least in the temporal experience of imagining it; a world real to the reader in the process of living in the present moment of the text.

David Lodge in his short essay, Creative Writing: Can it/Should it be Taught?(1996) describes the complexity of writing thus:

It is like a chemical, or alchemical, reaction between form and content. So many factors are involved in the production of a literary text; the writer’s life experience, his genetic inheritance, his historical context, his reading, his powers of recall, his capacity for introspection, his fantasy life, his understanding of the springs of narrative, his responsiveness to language ─ its rhythms, sounds, registers, nuances of meaning, and … innumerable chains of cause and effect which reach deep into the writer’s life and psyche (1996:178).

To bring one’s psyche into language means negotiating with our time-structured world. As with other aspects of writing, there is a multiplicity of possibilities and variations. Personal perspectives are inevitable and if, as Merleau-Ponty suggests, we think of ‘subjectivity as temporality’ then each writer’s perspective on time is negotiated in the construction of work of fiction.

For the writer, the process of being in the present moment of bringing the imagined into being while, at the same time, working in the past, present or future of a narrative, is a dual experience and there is the further challenge of locating the reader sensibly and sensitively within it. This is very different to the immediate and direct attention that must be given to a clay object being created by hand where my interior monologue is about how the felt is being realized visually. For me, a major difference is the difference is the internal and language-based negotiation that takes place when writing – the sense of self in a process which is deeply connected to ideas, thoughts and feelings, a process in which I am living the language that is being brought into being. The ongoing interior monologue is also a dialogue about the nature of the developing text and how what is being written is connected to the larger idea of the text as a whole, a whole only able to seen at the end of many months of work.

To what end is this discussion?  How does the writer make conscious decisions about time, both individual and communal understandings and renderings of it? Do writers need to be conscious of the creative opportunities available to them through renderings of time in terms of maintaining reader’s attention? Is time such an integral aspect of living and thinking that we deal with it unconsciously when writing and therefore should pay no attention to it at all? I ask these questions having been made conscious that time plays out differently when working creatively in different mediums. And there are other questions. How does our experience of time differ to the writing of time? Are there implications when considering the writing process? Is an understanding of it important for particular genres or rethinking structure?

For me, yes, is the answer. I can see that those digressions that occupy reading time but not narrative time must be more that being a thought bubble for the narrator. What is their purpose? In The Luminariesthey establish character, they create tension, increase the mystery and intrigue in the plot and reveal the past of each character. They create tension because, as readers, we know more than any character. And they are integral to the structure of this literary ‘who done it’. Further consideration of the reader’s experience will be taken to my next writing project. I am more conscious of options in the creation of a text and reflection about time has informed my writerly identity. Useful or not useful? Only you as a reader and writer can know whether such self-consciousness about your processes helps. For my part, when that flow of stream-of-consciousness writing takes over I will still be left asking whether or not the text fits – most probably into the time framework of the novel or the development of the narrative and whether or not my descriptions of my characters are only time related.






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