History of a Pleasure Seeker, By Richard Mason
Sexual intrigue? That's only the beginning
Sunday 15 May 2011
Before seeking pleasure in the latest novel from the still-young – 33 – writer whose debut, The Drowning People, and the advance he received for it, ended up the subject of Newsnight in 1999, you should probably know that it ends (plot-boiler alert...) with three of the most frustrating words in literature: "To be continued".
There would be no problem with this were the fact mentioned in the title ("Part One" would have been nice) or anywhere else. But it isn't, and this can't help but leave the unsuspecting reader feeling cheated.
Which is not to say that Mason's fifth book is without its saucy satisfactions. It tells the story of Piet Barol, the son of a petty bureaucrat in the Dutch university town of Leiden. Fortunately for Piet, to enable him to rise above his beginnings, his late mother, a singing teacher, trained him to appreciate the finer things in life: art, music, food, sex etc. Piet has learnt his lessons well and by the time he is 24 in 1907, he is ready to take up the position of tutor in the home of the cultivated and wealthy Vermeulen-Sickerts, in the Gilded Curve of belle époque Amsterdam.
Piet is a schemer, whose physical attraction to both sexes he has no qualms using to his advantage. But will his ends be best served by seducing the lady of the house, Jacobina, or one of her It-girl daughters, Constance and Louisa? Further to that, can he cure the Vermeulen-Sickerts' only son, Egbert, of the strange affliction that makes him unable to leave the house?
Mason tells his story with humour, charm, fine attention to detail and a healthy dose of eroticism. Much of the dialogue is sparkling and there are scenes which remind you why Mason was considered such an explosive talent at 19. But there are also signs of lazy editing: does a bath really need to be "filled very full"? And why, just a few paragraphs after a character's misery has "fossilised into rage" is his self-loathing allowed to "coagulate into hatred"?
With its Perfume-like atmosphere and anti-hero, History of a Pleasure Seeker is a novel that, ultimately, promises more than it delivers. Its final section, when Barol has left the Vermeulen-Sickerts' home, allows the novel's most interesting characters to slip through the author's fingers, leaving readers alone with a man they have not been primed to care about.
To be continued? Perhaps the reason the publishers haven't flagged it up anywhere is that they, and Mason, would do well to wait and see.
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