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History of a Pleasure Seeker Paperback – 12 Apr 2012
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A hugely accomplished novel - the story of Piet Barol, a young, provincial Dutchman and the social and sexual adventures he embarks upon in belle epoque Amsterdam. (THE INDEPENDENT)
Richard Mason's new novel - elegant, upholstered and, for all the sex, well-behaved - is part of a trend... for historical novels that seem not only set but written in the past - modern tracings, skilfully done, of old tropes, old forms. (ADAM LIVELY THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT)
a masterpiece. Like Henry James on Viagra. Not only gripping as hell, but brilliantly arranges that the imagined world of Maarten and Jacobina's household sits entirely within Amsterdam of the belle epoque. I thought Piet was wonderfully drawn - rogueish and yet wholly sympathetic. (Alex Preston, author of This Bleeding City)
A sharply written story of love, money and erotic intrigue pulsing behind the staid canal fronts of nineteenth century Amsterdam. Mason's hero is amoral but irresistible. I was gripped till the very last page. Thank God there's a sequel (Daisy Goodwin)
Mason tells his story with humour, charm, fine attention to detail and a healthy dose of eroticism. (INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY)
Upstanding stuff. (THE INDEPENDENT)
'A sharply written story of love, money and erotic intrigue pulsing behind the staid canal fronts of nineteenth-century Amsterdam' Daisy GoodwinSee all Product description
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He set up the Kay Mason Foundation in memory of his sister, who committed suicide in 1986. The foundation pays for gifted South African children from poor backgrounds to attend the country's top private schools. It has suffered setbacks: "They all started school in January 2003 and of course the Iraq War started in March and then the stock market crashed." In its wake so did the rand, and the KMF was left with a 30 per cent shortfall in its budget.
In keeping with the period, Mason wrote the novel by hand, in an oversize hand-stitched leather-bound notebook bound in sky blue. "Microsoft Word is no good for fiction," he said. "You don't see the archaeology of the text." It may explain why characters were not fully developed as editing is more difficult without a word processor. There are no sub plots and everything revolves around the main character. His exploits with a horse despite his inexperience are mentioned and then everything moves on. No aftermath. The massage scene shows no understanding of how massage works. His relationship with the boy he is tutoring could have been developed.
The main character, Piet, has no time for the simple-minded and religious. For him, Machiavelli is more realistic than the Sermon on Mount He fails to follow the advice of Epicurus - to consider the full consequences of a hedonistic act before embarking on it. I have heard the opinion that young men today are `all front'. They present themselves well, write impressive CVs but fail to deliver. They woo people by talking vacuously. Yet Piet was similar, even back then: `He was sure to be a success wherever he went.' It is said of him: `Sensible men don't dance like that.'
Maarten the boss and husband had no appetite for conversation and had made a vow after son was born with OCD - then referred to as Shadowers. He believed that God punishing him with money problems, spoke in typical Dutch Calvinist terms of `the centrality of his position in God's plans' and spend three hours in prayer each morning. There is a rare display of emotion on his part when he cries tears when son is freed from the Shadowers.
Mason researched the novel while living for months in Amsterdam. He selected as his key location a landmark house along the Gilded Curve that is now a museum, and interviewed the museum director at length. The house, at Herengracht 605, is five windows wide: given that town houses are built narrow (usually two windows wide) and high, this is a huge house, which is once described as `Sunday quiet.'
The sex scenes between Piet and his boss's wife and graphically described: her conscience is stilled by two glasses of champagne; she talks of her `kitten' and her `strawberry patch, he needs a book to hide his erection and muses that "God would not have created human bodies as he did if he disapproved of sexual pleasure." When she missed church she called up him to perform a `service' - cunnilingus.
Like many of his generation, he rejects labels like `gay' and `straight', even `bi'. "The distinction between pornography and literary writing about a character's erotic experience is psychological. As soon as the description degenerates into who-put-what-where, it's useless. We want to know what people are feeling--emotionally and physically. (Yet this book reminds some of 1970s soft porn.) Mason goes on to say he doesn't really believe in the concepts of straight or gay. "I've always felt tugged in both directions. At my wedding there were six of my ex-girlfriends. "Yet the straight sex was in great detail, whereas gay sex was so coy as to be irritating. Almost like two authors wrote different sections
Didier is saddened, after dalliances with Piet, that "Life would now return to snatched encounters, diverting in themselves but conducted without feeling."
Blok the butler is an old letch and is described in such terms as `warm slime' and is mindful of the prohibitions of Leviticus and St. Paul about homosexual acts.
Egbert discovers the healing power of music when it is not being played as a chore. Music adds to the sensuality of the book. "I get the emotional shape of a story in music," Mason said. "Piet uses music to create an atmosphere in a room." To please Jacobina upon their first meeting, he plays a Chopin nocturne and selections from Carmen; in an ironic bonding moment with her husband, he sings Bizet's Pearl Fishers duet with Maarten.
Some of the incidents reflect incidents in real life. His grandfather saw a brown package floating past him in a river and he swam to retrieve it. It contained a British soldier's pay packet, and he used the cash to book a third-class passage on a ship to England. He became friends with a boxer who upgraded him to first class and put him up at The Dorchester for a month.
The Panic of 1907 really happened and a committee was set sup to persuade the clergy to calm their congregations. Like our current crisis, lots of money was put in to shore up the system but, unlike now, bankers were trusted, as shown in a famous exchange of members of the Pujo Committee about the fundamentally psychological nature of banking--that it is an industry built on trust:
Untermyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?
Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.
Untermyer: Before money or property?
Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it ... a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.
Ship cabins were booked permanently because people wanted to be able to travel whenever they wanted and didn't want to be tied by waiting lists.
Piet makes promises at the end of the book which we know he can never keep.
The book is a light, enjoyable enough read - erotic sequences bound to boost sales. Although the various escapades entertain, some may find the novel's serious aspects more absorbing. One movingly concerns Piet's mother, now dead. Painstakingly she had instructed him in the ways of the rich, so he could rise from poverty to move smoothly in exalted circles. To her he owes everything. Then there is the plight of the little boy tormented by imagined "shadows" decreeing how he should act - he in such a state everything compulsively has to be done several times over, he even too scared to set foot outside the house. The family despairs, as did previous tutors. Is Piet likely to fare any better at conquering those fears?
With a change of direction, the novel perhaps tails off at the end. For many, however, appetite has been whetted to justify delight that Piet's exploits are "to be continued". This could be interesting, as The Great War fast approaches.
It descends from a long line of young-man-seeks-fortune-in-the-big-city yarns by giants such as Balzac ("Pere Goriot") and Guy de Mauppassant ("Bel Ami").
What with cable networks morphing novels into television series, author Richard Mason may have a winner on his hand if he'll only go with snappier title, "Bourgeois Behaving Badly."
The scene in "History of...," mostly, is turn of the century Amsterdam. Our hero is the humble-born Piet Barol who is skilled most at enjoying life and given the rapier tool best suited to this pursuit: beauty.
Barol is vain and ambitious in calculating, but it must be in a way that we all are, because the reader wishes him well and prays for his escape from some of the scrapes he rather hungrily gets himself into.
He's installed as a tutor in a burgher's house on an affluent Amsterdam canal as a tutor.
The man's wife is hot and unloved, his daughters flowering and enigmatic in interesting ways. A puritan runs the house staff, a pervert the service crew.
highwayscribery will avoid mentioning the ways, crafty and not, Barol navigates these seas while still reaching better shores.
Mr. Mason does what they call in comedy, "blue." If homosexuality or hearing the name of that thing hanging between men's legs called by its street name offend you, let us recommend Jane Austen.
"History of a Pleasure Seeker" is an easy read, rendered in efficient prose, and blessed with curious insights about Old World ways.
Mason permits himself no artistic indulgences, working with a strong forward moving structure, few flashbacks, al palatable tableaux peppered with good visual and historical detail.
It is really an Old World book, pulled from Old World ways of writing literature, with the novelty found in the voices of past masters sort of blended or woven into it.
Here you'll find erotic drama, laced with humor, with strong accents of Austen, Georges Bataille, de Sade, and Henry James.
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