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The Lycée d’État Chaptal was in the provincial town of Mende, high in the Lozere region of the Massif Central. A river ran between the school and the town, and the large sandstone building faced outwards, down the road to Le Puys. The impression was of a barracks, with thick walls and regimented windows, but inside the rooms were bright and airy, staving off the oppressive phalanx of pine-forested peaks. Unlike Terra Nova, Rossall and Castlepark, it reflected back the identity of the region, rather than a widely distributed social class. Since its foundation in 1554 it had provided sound day-school education, and the brightest pupils looked no farther than the universities of Montpellier or Clermont Ferrand. The statue of Mende’s most famous son, Jean-Antoine Chaptal – Senateur et Ministre, Précurseur de l’Industrie Chimique – set a wider perspective from the previous century, but few heeded the purposeful figure in high-collared frock coat and stock. ‘I am sitting in the Massif Central undiscovered, awaiting my destiny,’ Jim soon teased an Oxford contemporary by post, already with a hint of anxiety. ‘Was it Christ (or Eisenhower) who went away into the mountains to think? I can assure you he (or He) made a big mistake. Nobody thinks in mountains. There is nothing to think about except a lot of rock and trees and sky and sheep. The scenery is breathtaking. I have nothing against breathtaking scenery provided it’s on a ten minute travel film viewed at a safe distance from a comfortable seat in the back Stalls. But Nature raw I find a bit depressing.’ A bare light bulb dangled from the ceiling of his lodging house, Clair Logis, at 6 Boulevard Henri Bourri in the town centre. The water in the single tap was cold, but he had a narrow bed, a wooden chair, a primus stove and a small table for his typewriter. It was precisely what he sought, cheap and pared to the bone: ideal conditions for writing a CHAPTER NINE This Is the Kind of Life I Want 1960–1962 119 book. He had boasted to friends that he was going to write a potboiler, but perfectionism was to prove a handicap. ‘I do believe that meaning and style are so closely bound together,’ he had noted before leaving college, ‘that certain things cannot be said with the expressive qualities of the style, or, if they can be said, mean something different.’ The morning walk to school was along streets lined with plane trees, past a plaque to the local Resistance heroes ‘mort en déportation’, with Chaptal as his imaginary companion; a strong impression of that brisk scientific and administrative bent would inhabit the Collector in The Siege of Krishnapur. Burnished chestnuts were scattered on the ground when he arrived, but rapidly the cool air sharpened to match the chill of Mann’s territory in The Magic Mountain. Jim had half-seriously quipped in advance that Mende might be able to mend him. Auspiciously the song of the moment was Edith Piaf’s’ Je ne Regrette Rien’. In class his mischievous approach ensured that frail Monsieur Farrell became a popular figure, and he fitted back instinctively into the schoolmaster’s strict tempo; he was as close to the rhythm of the seasons, he sometimes mused, as a gardener or a gamekeeper. He taught – ‘mostly girls’ – for ten hours a week, because his contract was part-time. ‘This is a very poor and isolated mountain district, the poorest in France it seems,’ he soon deduced. ‘So the pupils are all from farms or small bourgeois families; apart from that, very few of them are good-looking which is a pity (!) and have very few interests . In fact, the only subjects which interest them are a) boys b) dances and c) films, so that is what we talk about all the time.’ Off duty he headed for one of Mende’s many eating-houses, where over a café noir he extended his own education by enquiring in detail about the day’s specialities. Elderly proprietors were pleased to talk, and when his mother came to stay she found him thoroughly at home. In the fervent rugby-playing region, photographs of the international teams of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, as well as France, were on display in bars, and mutual love of the game drew him to Monsieur Hours, a congenial master at the Lycée, who taught...


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