Passionate ascent of a social climber

March 2, 2012

The only thing wrong with this otherwise terrific novel is its title, which is (a) clumsy, (b) overlong and (c) only marginally accurate, for the protagonist to whom it refers is as much a giver of pleasure as a seeker of it. Never mind. “History of a Pleasure Seeker,” Richard Mason’s fourth novel, is the best new work of fiction to cross my desk in many moons. Mason, a native South African who was educated in England and now lives in New York City, has written an unabashed romance, a classic story of a young man who rises from unprepossessing circumstances to win the favor of the rich and prominent, and in so doing starts his progress toward what no doubt will be his own eminence. Here is how it begins:

“The adventures of adolescence had taught Piet Barol that he was extremely attractive to most women and to many men. He was old enough to be pragmatic about this advantage, young enough to be immodest, and experienced enough to suspect that it might be decisive in this, as in other instances. . . . He had an open face with amused blue eyes, a confident nose and thick black hair that curled around his ears. He was not much above middling height but he was muscular and well fashioned, with enormous gentle hands that made people wonder how it felt to be caressed by them.”

If that reminds you of Tom Jones, well, me too. The hero of Henry Fielding’s great picaresque novel is “a thoughtless, giddy youth, with little sobriety in his manners,” but has, according to his benefactor Squire Allworthy, “much goodness, generosity and honor in your temper; if you will add prudence and religion to these you will be happy.” Tom himself admits that “I have been guilty with women, I own it; but I am not conscious that I have ever injured any — nor would I, to procure pleasure to myself, be knowingly the cause of misery to any human being.” This is Piet Barol to the core. He has “a fine and instinctive appreciation of beauty,” whether in human or any other form, and he has “a natural capacity for sensuous enjoyment,” whether obtained in the arms of a woman (or, occasionally, a man) or from “clean, pressed sheets at night.”

“History of a Pleasure Seeker” begins in Amsterdam in 1907 and ends in Cape Town many months later. Strictly speaking it is a historical novel, but essentially it is timeless: Piet and the members of the Vermeulen-Sickerts family into which he insinuates himself are at once creatures of their own quite specific time and people whom one might meet any day now. None of them is without flaws, yet all of them are immensely, endearingly attractive.


’History of a Pleasure Seeker: A Novel’ by Richard Mason (Knopf)

Piet is 24 years old when he applies for the position of tutor to Egbert, the “extremely intelligent” but deeply troubled son of the household. His mother tells Piet: “We have had to obtain a special permit to educate him at home. He last went into the garden a year and a half ago but has refused absolutely to go into the street since he was eight years old.” He is the victim of self-created inner demons that nearly paralyze him, leaving him hopscotching over the floor’s black-and-white tiles in insanely mathematical patterns and playing a single Bach composition on the piano over and over and over again. He behaves “with an hauteur learned from his elders, which was deeply unattractive in a ten-year-old boy who will one day be the possessor of a large fortune.”

That fortune has been accumulated by his father, Maarten, first by “selling ice around the world,” then by erecting “the country’s most lavish hotel and a number of similar establishments across Europe.” Taking agreeable liberties with historical truth, Mason has him building the Plaza in New York as the novel takes place, a maddeningly expensive undertaking that brings him to the brink of bankruptcy. “Taken together,” the Veremeulen-Sickerts family “had a reputation for being colorful and modern and very rich: three qualities Piet felt sure would ease the tedium of teaching a spoiled little boy.”

The other members of the family are Maarten’s wife, Jacobina, “approaching forty-six” with a “neat waist and quick, fashionable movements”; their daughter Constance, “twenty-one years old, short and blond and confident”; and the other daughter, Louisa, who is “dark and grave and looked older than her nineteen years.” There are also various servants, most important among them Naomi de Leeuw, the housekeeper, who “keeps everyone very firmly in line, and if you annoy her she’ll find a way to have you dismissed.” That description is provided by Didier Loubat, the footman, Piet’s contemporary, with “a lean, athletic frame, high cheekbones, and a seductively crooked smile.” The two young men soon become the best of friends, a relationship that is complicated by the amorous designs that Didier develops toward Piet.

But then all relationships in the house of Veremeulen-Sickerts are complicated. To begin with, though upstairs and downstairs are carefully separated, Piet occupies an ambiguous place in between. On the one hand, he lives in a servant’s room in the attic, but on the other he takes his (lavish) meals with the family and slowly is accepted by the sisters — albeit more by Constance than by Louisa — as someone very close to a friend. The real complication, however, is presented by Jacobina, who remains unusually attractive yet has not been touched by her husband, whom she loves, for a decade. She does not know that when he was at last given the gift of a son, he “made a bargain with God” and swore to “abstain forever from the pleasures of the flesh.”

Of course you know what’s coming next. Piet and Jacobina begin a highly clandestine and wildly passionate affair, but the exact form it takes and the resolution it ultimately reaches are for you to discover. Suffice it to say that there are surprises, all of which strike me as entirely believable and appropriate; the pleasures that she gives Piet are far smaller and more lasting than those that he gives her. In this, as in so much else, his resemblance to Tom Jones is uncanny.

While these erotic and romantic matters proceed, in the background Piet carries on his slow, frustrating attempt to bring Egbert out of his shell and into the world. Maarten, whom Piet has come to like and admire (despite his guilt at cuckolding him) and who returns these feelings in kind, nonetheless leaves no doubt that Piet’s position in the household will depend on the success or failure of his mission with the boy. “Between the child and the young man a wary ease had arisen, the result of Piet’s scrupulous refusal to ask Egbert to explain himself or behave as other children did,” but in time exasperation takes over, leading Piet to make a rash move that seems to spell the end. In fact it doesn’t, but that too is for you to learn how and why.

There is an almost magical quality to all this that had me thoroughly engaged from first page to last. Some readers may find the novel’s resolution too pat, or improbable, or easy, but I disagree. Where Mason leaves Piet seems to me to be precisely the right place and with the right person. The reason is that Mason’s hand simply gets surer and surer with each new novel. He has an appealingly playful quality that has never been more evident than it is here; he likes all of his characters and mostly gives them what they deserve; he conjures up early-20th-century Amsterdam and, more briefly, New York, with confidence and exceptional descriptive powers. My only regret about “History of a Pleasure Seeker” (apart from its silly title) is that it didn’t go on for several hundred pages more.

yardleyj@washpost.com

HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER

By Richard Mason

Knopf. 277 pp. $25.95

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