It is regrettable that the various pleasures of the flesh featured so prominently in Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker do not translate to pleasurable reading. The praise decorating this novel is excessive: “a masterpiece,” “accomplished,” “Henry James on Viagra.” Sadly, these descriptions are fraudulent, if not ironic.
Piet Barol, the story’s protagonist, is an archetype, an ambitious young man of modest origins, determined to fight his way upward and to create for himself, against all odds, a new identity. Relatively cultured and well-educated, he is most advantaged by an attractive appearance, a well-made body, an almost preternatural ability to discern what will please others, and the manners to pass as better than his class.
The narrative follows his progress as he becomes tutor to the troubled child of a rich Amsterdam family in 1907. While he plans to use this job to position himself to go abroad and make his fortune, as with all egotists he cannot resist exerting his charms. He flirts with the house’s servants, the family’s daughters, friends and foes. So agreeable that he dupes everyone, he is unable to restrain himself, and unwisely enters a liaison with the mistress of the house, putting “his body at her disposal.”
When this perfidy is inevitably discovered, he is, of course, discharged. He sets sail for South Africa as a place where he might be able to live up to his own opinion of himself. The sea journey itself becomes a test of Barol’s inventive magnetism, and after tempting a conveniently prosperous passenger, he is saved from penury and nicely set up to seduce the southern hemisphere. The novel ends with his arrival in Cape Town and promises “to be continued.”
I wanted to read History of a Pleasure Seeker because of its setting in early 1900s Amsterdam, but while the research is accurate enough, and the physical details of a Dutch household at that moment in history rich and textured, the final achievement of this novel is resoundingly deficient.
For all its histrionic performances, History of a Pleasure Seeker performs most convincingly as a male Harlequin romance, with appropriate accoutrements: class discrepancies, rustling clothing, exotic feasts and their consumption. It employs every euphemism for seduction possible, roving through various sexual escapades with men and women as it builds toward a crescendo of consummation.
I am not a bashful or prudish reader; physically bawdy novels that succeed in celebrating the sexuality of their characters earn my praise. What makes this novel intensely irritating is its arch vanity, its self-congratulatory tone and its manipulative insistence on über-cleverness. The third-person narrator is so in love with Piet’s character that he condescends to his own content, endlessly overexplaining. Such maladroit intrusions do not allow for the reader’s imagination to engage with what might have been an compelling story.
Ultimately, Piet Barol is a narcissist with a terribly good opinion of himself and the kind of slothful good luck that only fiction can bestow on charming wastrel-characters. Which makes him a bore. Since he is a fiction, he can be forgiven. The writer and publisher of this novel, however, cannot.
History of a Pleasure Seeker symptomizes the crisis of anxiety that dogs the publishing industry (readers must be enticed by stories about sex and money) and the impoverishment of what is decreed as creative work (interpret and manipulate rather than evoke). Discerning readers will be smart enough to know that this novel is not worth wasting time on.
Aritha van Herk lives and writes in Calgary, which has its own brand of pleasure seekers.