Book review: History of a Pleasure Seeker
This Belle Époque feast of sex, ambition and luxury goods is rich, but will readers be satisfied?
History of a Pleasure Seeker is an entertaining romp about the career and sexual adventures of Piet Barol, a beautiful young social climber living in Amsterdam in 1907. At first, Piet’s sexual intrigues and the pressure to keep pace with the wasteful, extravagant rich seem to be leading us into the territory occupied by de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses or Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, but History of a Pleasure Seeker is not a tragedy or a scathing indictment of the inequalities and hypocrisy of society. Although we glimpse the strangled hopes and vengeful impulses of the servants, pleasure rules in this world. Richard Mason treats us to a banquet of sex, gourmet food, luxurious clothes, fine art and music.
The characters in History of a Pleasure Seeker express themselves or seduce others through music, particularly the opera Carmen. Music’s power to wash over people in erotic and hedonistic waves saturates Mason’s novel. Piet selects music to suit his machinations, as in this scene:
“[The entr’acte from Carmen’s] pure, beguiling melody rose from the embers of the nocturne and the rumbling arpeggios of the bass line showed his hands to advantage. As he played, he thought of the smugglers who appear on stage at its close, whispering that fortune awaits if only they will tread carefully. This was exactly how he felt as he drenched his quarry in sweet, permissive magic.”
One of the characters, however, is excluded from the sensuous pleasures of music, a prisoner of unseen forces that compel him to perform exacting pieces by Bach over and over again. Outwardly, Egbert Vermeulen-Sickerts is the privileged son of a fabulously rich hotelier, the heir to a fortune. Inwardly, Egbert is a terrified little boy suffering from agoraphobia and obsessions. Piet Barol is Egbert’s latest tutor and his success depends on releasing Maarten and Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts’s only son from his illness.
Egbert, trapped in a series of punishing obsessive-compulsive rituals to ward off chaos, seems to be a 21st-century person, or a character that only a 21st-century novelist would create. History of a Pleasure Seeker is the latest in a slew of stories that tap into contemporary interest in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism (think of films and books such as Addition, Stranger than Fiction, As Good as it Gets, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Rain Man and The Secret Cure, to name just a few). The limitations placed on sufferers provide storytellers with plot devices and opportunities to explore what it is to be human.
Living as they do in a world of Louis Quinze furniture, Rolls-Royces, cashmere, sapphires and pearls, Mason’s characters might be unlikeable if not for their vulnerability. Maarten is rich beyond most people’s dreams, but has been unable to free his son. Consumed by fear and guilt, he offers sacrifices to God and finds ominous signs everywhere, much like the tormented Egbert. His wife Jacobina is surrounded by luxury but cannot fulfil simpler needs. Maarten and Jacobina’s astute daughter Louisa wants to make her own way in the world, but is expected to be merely ornamental. Her fate is tied to that of her father and if his hotel empire falls, she will fall with it. History of a Pleasure Seeker rises above shopping and gastro-porn in these moments of pity and humour.
For three-quarters of his novel, Richard Mason skilfully keeps us in suspense, waiting to see if social and financial ruin — an ever-present threat — will crush the ambitious young Piet, or his masters, the Vermeulen-Sickerts. Maarten’s shattered nerves over the instability of New York’s banks in 1907 remind us of our own Global Financial Crisis and as readers, we know that the Depression and Great War are just around the corner for the Vermeulen-Sickerts and their servants. And as for Piet, he may have his imperfections, but we are keen to see how he will engineer his next escape. Like his literary ancestor, Lucien de Rubempré from Balzac’s novels Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low (Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes), Piet has a beauty and an instinct for self-preservation that outpaces his talents, work ethic and conscience.
In the last quarter of the novel, the protagonist sets sail without a clear sense of purpose and unfortunately, much the same thing happens to the narrative. We leave behind more interesting and sympathetic characters, such as Louisa and Maarten, for shadowy ones who propel an increasingly flimsy plot. The fortuitous arrival of Jay Gruneberger in Piet’s life brings to mind Carlos Herrera, the deus ex machina in Balzac’s Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low. Just as Balzac had to introduce Herrera to keep Lucien moving, so too Mason has to introduce Gruneberger to nudge Piet along.
Spoiler alert: The next paragraph reveals something about the book’s conclusion
The story ends with Piet wallowing in pleasure, and then the unexpected and unwelcome words ‘To be continued’. Until now, neither the author nor the publisher has given us any hint that this is (or might be) the first book in a series. The hardcover, stamped in gold foil, reveals nothing. Even the novel’s title suggests that this will be a complete story in itself, not a prequel. History of a Pleasure Seeker may be enjoyable enough to keep readers waiting for the next instalment, but some may wish that the author, like his creation Piet, was less of a tease.