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.
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.”