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Jim had taken to wearing a suit of bleached Indian cotton in summer which accentuated his greenish-blue eyes and his tan; in winter he sported a melodramatic dark hat with rakish brim and high crown. Women noticed him, as he was well aware. ‘Physically he was delicate-looking,’ wrote one, ‘with prematurely silver hair swept back from a fine brow with surprisingly thick, dark eyebrows. He had an Irish face of the neat, elfin kind with a large nose and a sensitively humorous mouth. His voice was educated, English and tinny, with a tendency to trail away on the ends of words which he had emphasized .’ ‘He was absolutely correct,’ approved another, ‘and slightly unusual. Very immaculate, but not boringly British.’ If he was asked to put a label on himself, he usually chose cosmopolitan, an apt description. ‘He seemed un-English in his manner, openness and generosity ’, a normally waspish male American novelist pointed out. ‘He was much warmer, more friendly and there was less sense of class.’ In the close-knit book world Jim now became, as it was put, un homme fatal. ‘Jim loved women,’ one girlfriend indulgently observed, ‘and women loved Jim.’ Sex, he admitted, gave him a wonderful feeling of mental clarity. ‘One knew he saw women but he never brought them along,’ noticed Alison Lurie. ‘They tended to be younger and not up to the dinner parties.’ ‘He rather liked nymphets,’ said Sonia Orwell’s younger colleague, Ian Angus. Women sometimes said that going to bed with him, Jim confided to Margaret Drabble in a tone of self-mockery, was like going to bed with a good book. ‘And they do tend to complain,’ he added, highly amused by the unexciting comparison, ‘that they are not the only woman in my life. So I say, “Why should they be?”’ Each girlfriend believed she was the only one, until made aware when she was in love with him of the quality and quantity of equal candidates. But anyone with a slim volume behind them, he was heard to ridicule, 302 CHAPTER EIGHTEEN At Large in the Minefields 1975–1978 could attract women. ‘I believe,’ one casualty concluded, ‘that the makeup of these men is such that, whatever happens to their career and fame, it can’t possibly work out. You almost can’t blame them for having a terribly unhappy effect on you.’ The compartments Jim employed were not visible until too late. The young graduate Brigid Allen had met him early in 1973 but after the Booker Prize saw him much less often, a sequence made no less painful by her ability to be as analytical as he. ‘On one hand,’ she said later, ‘he was easy, natural, willing to start a relationship, even if it was to fail. That would be a relationship of talking about good books, art, food and, in his cautious way, involving sex. On the other hand, there was a strong negativeness; he was from the carping generation, inclined to quarrel with things. And on another level he enjoyed being famous. He could be bitchy about well-known writers, but he would like the idea of being on the same level himself, and knowing someone as an insider made him more generous towards them. He enjoyed feeling he could do things, and he was exhilarated by success.’ Rose Knox Peebles was in a position to matchmake for him, but she made no attempt to do so. ‘I couldn’t see anyone resisting him,’ she explained, ‘and I wouldn’t have liked to have seen them unhappy. The only woman who could have coped would have been someone genuinely content with being a housekeeper, because he had to have a separate existence.’ Jim’s own image for disillusion had been on record for seven years and offered little hope that he might one day change. I was like a man who sees a breeze playing over a field of corn and is so inspired by its beauty that he buys it. Well, I bought the field but I couldn’t buy the breeze. The breeze dropped. His choice of flat was a statement in itself, and a woman was unwise to ignore the space for a single occupant, or the self-sufficient blend of male and female capability. A night with Jim was stagemanaged for voluntary early exit, from the unaccommodating bed to the monosyllabic toast and Bovril breakfast which made plain the expectation of being left...


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