HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER
By Richard Mason
Alfred A Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages
As the cadence of its title suggests, “History of a Pleasure Seeker” is a picaresque novel in the 18th-century tradition of JohnCleland’s “Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” and Henry Fielding’s “The History of Tom Jones.”
Like Fanny and Tom, Piet Barol - the pleasure seeker of the title - has to make his own way in life. Fortunately, he is not without assets. The enticing opening lines of this novel note, “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 it might be decisive.”
He is quite right about its decisiveness. Piet is a charmer. Equally useful to his progress, he is also an opportunist. The reader meets him in early-20th-century Amsterdam, where he is being interviewed for a job as tutor to Egbert, son of the wealthy hotelier Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts. Egbert is intellectually and musically talented, but he refuses to leave the house and is prey to obsessive compulsions. Does Piet have the skills to deal with this child? He suspects not, but he is absolutely certain that the Vermeulen-Sickertses have what he himself needs - or yearns for: the lavish life that money buys.
Once installed in their home, Piet catches the eyes of both the manservant Didier and Jacobina, the handsome, if seemingly frosty, lady of the house. Between them, Jacobina and Didier keep Piet supplied with good things including sophisticated clothes, succulent foods, serious wines and sexual romps. Constance and Louisa, the two marriageable daughters, add zest, while Maarten proves an amiable boss.
Piet delights in all these blessings, and in return tries to give value by doing his best for Egbert - and for Didier and Jacobina. He succeeds. His methods, however, are unorthodox, so, like all picaresque heroes, he must suffer for his peccadilloes. Moving on to pastures new, he takes ship for Cape Town. It’s fun because Didier is still pampering him, but as disembarkation nears he is wondering how he is going to get his hands on money and luxuries. Flirtatiously promising an answer, the book closes with the assurance “To be continued.”
Or, to put it another way, this novel ends as it began, winking broadly at historic genres of fiction - in this case the serial and roman-fleuve, which deliver regular updates on their hero’s doings. They can be enticing. Most of us love serials: Witness the compelling “Downton Abbey,” luring millions of viewers to their TVs.
It’s doubtful that Piet Barol will have the allure of “Downton.” For one thing, “Downton” has a multigenerational upstairs family, a downstairs staff and a changing focus that keeps the spotlight moving and interest engaged. In contrast, Piet always hogs center stage, and while Richard Mason suggests that some of the Vermeulen-Sickertses - feasibly Egbert, Louisa and Maarten - could be worth watching, he keeps them mostly in the background.
Then, too, several of the “Downton” characters are serious people dealing with thorny issues. Piet has one goal: a life of ease. It’s possible to be amused at his opportunism, even occasionally to root for him, but neither Piet nor his ambitions can hold serious attention for long. Nor can Jacobina or Didier, who are little more than ciphers.
Mr. Mason does not compensate for the simple representation of most of his characters with evocation of time and place. We are reminded often of period details such as the smell of Amsterdam’s canals, the style of early-20th-century clothes, and the obsequiousness of servants forced into servility by the pride of the wealthy. But these minutiae gesture at history; they do not re-create it. Only when Maarten is trapped in New York’s financial crisis of 1907 does the period come alive with vivid pictures of the city and the speculators of the Gilded Age.
So if “History of a Pleasure Seeker” neither conjures nor investigates life as lived 100 or so years ago, why is it set back then? One answer is that pre-World War I Europe had all its Victorian rigidities intact, and they make for a better story. Strict controls on female sexuality power the thrills of Piet’s romps with Jacobina, and sharp class divisions spice his pleasure in luxuries.
More important, distance in time and place lends enchantment, and we are seeing a lot of it today. It’s not just “Downton Abbey” that is set in the same era as Piet’s story. The Oscar-nominated movies “Hugo” and “Albert Nobbs” are rooted there too, and “The Artist” is set only a few decades later. Other Oscar nominees that look back, though not quite so far, include “The Help,” “The Iron Lady” and the remade “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” What they share is something to fight against. We have ogres to combat too, but it seems they loom too large to be tackled just yet.
Maybe one of the things that “History of Pleasure Seeker” is doing is offering a little light relief. Its author has many talents. He keeps a firm grip on his narrative while wearing the velvet gloves of a pretty way with words. These literary skills might show to more effect when he writes his next volume about Piet Barol.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.