Richard Mason (2012) History of a Pleasure Seeker Phoenix, London; 283 pp.; ISBN 978-0-7538-2842-7
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Piet Barol is a young, good looking man with a determination to enter high society and live the prosperous life. Piet’s birthplace of Holland is at this time dour and god-fearing. His father fits the mould perfectly, but Piet’s drive comes from the dreams and aspirations of his French mother, who feeds her son stories from an early age and inculcates him with the manners and bearing of someone well above his station. Piet knows that life is all a game and that with steely self-confidence you can bluff your way through. His nerve occasionally falters, but in the end his conviction proves to be correct.
Piet obtains a job as tutor to the young son of Maarten and Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts. The boy is beset by phobias and unable to leave the house. His two much older sisters on the other hand are outgoing and well known in Amsterdam’s social circles. The family lives in material comfort because Maarten owns some of the most fashionable hotels in Europe, and is about to make his first foray into New York.
Unable to communicate with his strange and distant son, Maarten takes a fatherly interest in Piet and admires the young man’s ambitions and talents. The sisters are both attracted to Piet, but they are also resentful of the power that he derives from his handsome bearing and smooth way with words. Sensing which side his bread is buttered on, Piet seduces the mother, Jacobina, and their intimate but fraught relationship is described in wonderful erotic detail. Perhaps his own mother forgot to tell him, but playing with the emotions of women in the same household is a recipe for disaster, and the charmed life that Piet enjoys with the Vermeulen-Sickerts family is brought to a dramatic end.
The final third of the novel is set on a sea voyage to South Africa, during which Piet swings between high confidence and despair as he contemplates which way his life will go next. Stuck in tourist class on a glamorous liner with daily reminders of all the life he wishes to leave behind, an encounter with a former servant of the Vermeulen-Sickerts household gets him into the first class section of the ship, where both risk and opportunity are to be found. In the end, his handsome looks and open-minded approach to pleasure set him on a new course in life and we sense that South Africa will be the making of him.
Richard Mason evokes the period’s manners, class divisions, colours and sounds with an accomplished control of language. The intimate scenes are both subtle and strongly sensual, and he moves easily between the public lives and private thoughts of the protagonists. The message is that success in life will come more easily if you are good looking, have plenty of money, and only have carry-on baggage for your moral outings.
Some people in this novel are rich and many are poor, but all of them aspire to be wealthy. Only a few succeed. Yet what we see of the rich makes them an unattractive lot. They are driven by inner demons and while they can be generous, when their position is threatened they are spiteful and ruthless. The lives of the poor are subject to the whims of the rich, and this is what drives many of the poor to try and emulate their masters. Mason never allows for an alternative. His view of humanity is thus a bleak one, but many will see it as an authentic depiction of the world we live in. No wonder plastic surgery and investment banking are so popular.