History of a Pleasure Seeker

History of a Pleasure Seeker

by Richard Mason


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307949288
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/13/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.36(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Award-winning novelist RICHARD MASON was born in South Africa and raised in England. He wrote his first novel The Drowning People the year before he went to Oxford. With the proceeds from the book’s success, he set up the Kay Mason Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children attend the best schools in Cape Town. In 2010 he broadened the KMF’s scope by founding an eco-project in the country’s Eastern Cape. The Lighted Rooms and History of a Pleasure Seeker are the first in a constellation of related novels. The next in the series will follow Piet Barol to South Africa’s Wild Coast. Mason lives between New York, Cape Town and Glasgow, Scotland.


Read an Excerpt

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.

As he stepped from the Leiden train into the whirling hustle of the Central Station, several passers-by turned dis- creetly to look at him. 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.

In one of these hands on this cold February morning was an envelope too large for the pockets of his English suit. It contained a copy of his degree certificate and a letter of recommendation from a professor who owed his father a favor. As Piet crossed the traffic on the Prins Hendrikkade, he reaffirmed the decision he had made immediately on receiving Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts’ invitation to inter- view: that he would knock at the front door of the house, like an equal, and not at the servants’ entrance.

The family lived on the grandest stretch of the grandest canal in Amsterdam. Piet knew from the newspapers that Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts dispensed bread to the slum dwellers and had been instrumental in bringing clean drinking water to the city’s poorest districts. He knew he owned the country’s most lavish hotel and a number of similar establishments across Europe. His daughters, Con- stance and Louisa, were familiar to Piet, too, as was their leadership of the “smart young set” and the rumor that they alarmed their mother, Jacobina. Taken together, the family had a reputation for being colorful and modern and very rich: three qualities Piet felt sure would ease the tedium of teaching a spoiled little boy.

He sauntered down the Blauwbergwal and crossed onto the Herengracht Canal. On both sides of the water, houses built for the magnates of the seventeenth century surveyed the world with the serenity that comes from surviving the upheavals of three hundred years unscathed. They were tall but slender, with none of the grandiloquence of the rich men’s houses his mother had shown him in Paris, and yet the fact that they were rich men’s houses was indisputable, and subtly advertised by the profusion of their windows.

Piet turned left, and in his head he was walking away from Leiden, from Herman Barol’s dark little house on the Pieterskerkhof and the life of the university clerk that went with it. For four years Piet had been assisting his father in sanctioning undergraduates who had omitted to pay their library fines or cheated in their exams or been caught in the company of women of ill repute. From these young men he had learned to affect the nonchalant swagger of the rich, but he had no intention of chasing them up forever.

He put a freshly laundered handkerchief over his mouth and inhaled deeply. The canal stank with a virulence for which life in the comparative simplicity of a country town had not prepared him. Within the odor’s complex depths lurked cheese rinds, rotting shoes, rats’ urine, human def- ecation, oil, tar, and a consignment of industrial chemicals that had leaked from a ship in the harbor. The combined effect was choking, but the people who passed him paid no attention to it. He was sure that he, too, would get used to it in time.

He continued more briskly. As the house numbers increased, so did the emphasis of the architecture’s whis- pered message: that people of wealth and distinction lived here. The narrower dwellings, two or three windows across, that dominated the earlier stretches of the canal grew rarer. As he crossed the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, they all but disap- peared. Soon the narrowest house was four windows wide. Which one was theirs? He looked at his watch. He was still twenty minutes early. To avoid being seen, he crossed the canal and continued his walk up the farther side.

The appearance of a house with six windows on its ground floor signaled a further elevation of status and the beginning of the Gilded Curve. He felt a pricking of panic. He had not always been a diligent student and there was little sincerity in the recommendation his professor had given him, a fact that would reveal itself to a sensitive reader. Piet was far cleverer than many who had more to show for their clever- ness, but this was hardly an argument he could advance. He did speak perfect French—his mother Nina had been a Parisienne and his English and German were adequate; but his piano playing was only competent, and the adver- tisement had stressed Egbert Vermeulen-Sickerts’ musical genius and the desirability of a tutor who could match and extend it.

He sat down on a wrought-iron bench between two trees and collected himself. He did not have the best credentials but was wise enough to understand—even at twenty-four— that symbols on paper are not the only grounds on which people make up their minds. A tutor, after all, was more than a servant. The successful candidate would dine with the family, not wait on them, and though the Vermeulen- Sickertses had not specified this requirement, he was sure that people so à la mode would prize amusing conversation. This he was very good at making, having learned the arts of charm at his mother’s knee.

He took out Jacobina’s letter and began to sketch on the back of the envelope the austere, imposing façade of a house opposite him. When he had captured the tricky perspec- tive of water and bricks, he felt calmer and more optimistic. He stood up and walked on; and as the canal curved again he saw the house at number 605.

The possibility that he might soon sleep in one of the rooms on its upper stories made Piet Barol shiver beneath his cashmere coat with its velvet collar, bought secondhand from a well-off student with urgent debts. The house was five windows wide and five stories high, with hundreds of panes of glass that glittered with reflections of canal and sky. The front door was on the first floor, achieved by a handsome double staircase of gray stone, and the façade of small rectangular bricks was relieved of sternness by pretty white stucco scrolls. Despite its size there was nothing showy about it, nothing over-ornamented or insecure.

Piet approved wholeheartedly.

He was crossing the bridge towards it when a man in his late twenties emerged from the servants’ entrance beneath the staircase. He was not well dressed and his suit, which had been bought in slimmer days, was too obviously “Sun- day best.” He looked a little like a young man who had pur- sued Piet doggedly the summer before: dark and slouched, with a drooping chin and an oily nose. Piet had not let that chap have his way, and he did not intend to let this one prevail either. As his competitor made off in the direction of the station, Piet saw that he was slightly out of breath by the time he had gone a hundred yards. The spectacle cheered him.

He straightened his tie and crossed the bridge. As he pre- pared to mount the steps to the front door, the servants’ door opened, and a woman with a severe chin said: “Mr. Barol? We are expecting you. If you’d be so good as to step inside.”

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of History of a Pleasure Seeker, the elegant, beguiling, and erotic new novel by Richard Mason, acclaimed author of The Drowning People and Natural Elements.

1. Who is the “pleasure seeker” of the title? Who else might that describe?

2. How does Maarten’s repudiation of pleasure define his character?

3. What is the metaphor of the tightrope?

4. How do the chaacters’ different religious beliefs shape the events of the story?

5. “Like his father, Egbert was deeply private about his interior afflictions” (page 40). Are there other ways in which father and son are alike? How are they different?

6. Throughout the novel, Mason calls our attention to shared character traits. What do Egbert and Piet share? Piet and Maarten?

7. What role does guilt play in Piet’s actions?

8. The voices Egbert hears are guided by color: “toying with primary colors was an offense that merited prolonged punishment” (page 100). Why do you think color affects Egbert this way? How does Mason use color with other characters?

9. What is the significance of the horseback-riding scene on pages 109–14? Why does it prompt Piet to carry Egbert outside?

10. How does having money—or not having it—affect the characters’ behavior? What about the other members of the household staff? In the terms of this novel, what is the difference between money and class?

11. Why is Piet willing to risk everything to see Jacobina? Is he in love with her?

12. When Louisa seeks her father’s help in opening a shop, he tells her: “You must marry a man with talent and ambition, whose interests you may serve as your mother has served mine. That is the way in which a woman may succeed” (page 153). Is this true for all the women in the novel? How are things changing with the times?

13. What finally gives Egbert the strength to go outside on his own? What role does music play in the decision (pages 154–5)?

14. When Piet turns down Louisa’s proposal, what is the result? How does it influence the novel’s denouement?

15. Why doesn’t the novel end when Piet leaves the Vermeulen-Sickerts household? How might you have imagined Piet’s next steps, if Mason hadn’t supplied them?

16. How does Piet’s interlude with his father change your understanding of his character? How did his late mother shape his behavior?

17. What role does Didier play in the novel’s ending? What impact might a different response from him have had on Piet’s future?

18. What has changed within Piet, that he resolves to tell the truth to Stacey?

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History of a Pleasure Seeker 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
ccourtland More than 1 year ago
Piet Barol is a classic, seductive, golden boy who comes from modest means, but rises with the help of good looks and some common-sense charm that carries him a long way. The book is divided into two parts, with Piet Barol the focal character that pulls it together. The first half is intriguing and builds as the imperfections, phobias, morals and obstacles of the characters are revealed. Based on this, I would have rated the book higher, but then disappointment occurs when the period with the Vermeulen-Sickerts family is neatly tied up and Piet Barol abandons ship and sets sail to Cape Town. It is too neat and tidy for my taste. All is so quickly forgiven and realized, which gave me pause. However, there is room for a sequel and I'm hoping this is merely a set-up for more to come, but despite Piet's evident talent of the tongue, he left me unsatisfied. The second half takes place on the ship heading to Cape Town. This is a bit rushed and convenient as well. Piet gets himself in some situations, but is always saved or let off the dangle rather easily. This decreases the tension and gives a ho-hum outcome. It's a touch taboo and a bit randy in places, but all in all too light in scandal and risk. I wanted more at stake, or at least a better build up with nail-biting disappointment. History of A Pleasure Seeker floats causally like an imposter at a party no one really cares if you crash.
TiredofGarbage More than 1 year ago
You can see that much research went into this book - research on the city of Amsterday, rich people's toys, what was fashionable in 1907, how the second Plaza Hotel was constructed in New York, sea voyages. It has one interesting plot device - using operatic music to communicate when society forbids communication. For the research and this one device, 2 stars. But sadly, the book is ultimately unsatisfying. It's not for want of the detail, or the many characters, or the detailed descriptions of various sex acts. It's because there is so little real plot, real affection or real pleasure in the characters' lives, and there are so many contradictions. It does not take long to realize that the "pleasure seeker" of the title is really a gigolo, that the main character's true occupation is selling sex for immediate personal gain, starting in the first few pages. What is surprising are all the contradictions in the book, and the unreality that makes the reader wonder if it has veered into magical realism. Contradictions like telling us again and again that Piet, the main character, is ambitious, and planning a future as a businessman - but when he finally makes a career move, he has no real plan, and is readily swayed by the rich people around him. There are so many plot devices that seem fantastical - sudden cures, sudden reconciliations, and strange turns of events that lead nowhere. Finding the dreaded three little words "to be continued" on the last page was worrying - oh no, more words are coming about characters' aimless, unhappy behavior in pursuit of riches - but not much story. If there had been more character development, rather than character repetition - did we need to hear about Piet's parents over and over? - it might have had a chance to be an interesting book. As it is, it is really simply a bodice-ripper (or the male equivalent, is that a singlet-ripper??) featuring soft porn interludes - lots of disrobing and gushing goes on - with no real story. Sadly, not recommended.
swellms on LibraryThing 8 months ago
There's no doubt that it's the heady and compelling eroticism of this gem of a book which leaves the most lasting impression. Extended passages of rich, sensuous, almost tactile, prose - recounting tales of sexual pursuit and conquest - play upon the senses like a complex perfume. Through Richard Mason's artistry, the reader finds him or herself (and in this world gender counts for very little) placed centre-stage as the Pleasure Seeker of the title.The story centres on the progress of Piet Barol, a well-educated but lowly born young man setting out to pursue a fortune in Amsterdam in 1907. Barol - who the first sentence of the book tells us was ¿extremely attractive to most women and many men¿ - manages to secure a job as tutor to a young child of the very wealthy Vermeulen Sickerts family. This brings him into contact with Maarten, the head of the family who sees him as a surrogate son, Jacobina, his frustrated wife who sees him as anything but, the couple¿s daughters, and a variety of characters amongst the serving staff. Barol¿s interaction with most of these is charged with some level of sexual tension, which plays out in a variety of ways.But don¿t imagine this to be some kind of literary "Confessions of..." Yes, it is very sexy in places. But our hero doesn't avail himself of every erotic offering which comes his way. His fear of venereal disease, his awareness that unchecked passion may undermine the ambition which is the one thing more powerful than his libido, and his deep sense of his place all combine to restrain him at times. Restraint in fact features prominently in the story, and many of the erotic passages concern the contemplation, as much as the having, of sex. In this sense, it is deeply grounded in reality.And there is much more as well. A detailed picture of the rising Dutch middle class at the beginning of the twentieth century. An all-too-familiar tale of greed and banking crisis. Art and music. Religious doubt and conviction. Coping with extreme OCD. Some early stirrings of feminism.This diverse mix of threads is woven into a compelling story with great skill. The writing oozes voluptuousness and quality, but things still move along at a good pace. Mason has no problem with switching point-of-view at will. He manages to align our sympathies with a hero who could very easily have turned out to be odious and repulsive. And he knows precisely the moment to season his literary prose with the strongest of Anglo-Saxon words.Some people have said that they find the ending too sudden and a little unconvincing. Maybe, but we are promised that there is more to come, and I for one, like many of the characters in this very pleasing book, am gagging for it.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I have not yet read Fifty Shade of Grey despite the fact that it seems to have captured the imaginations of housewives far and wide (and I use the term housewife without sarcasm as I certainly fit the description myself). It's not because I'm turned off by the idea of sex, graphic or otherwise in books, it's because the plot, such as it is, doesn't appeal to me. Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker, on the other hand, has some quite risque scenes in it but it also has a story line that piqued my interest in ways that the other did not.At the start of the twentieth century in Amsterdam, Piet Barol contrives to get himself hired as the private tutor to a young agoraphobic boy. He is not the most qualified for the job but Piet has something special going for him: he's attractive, charming, and completely appealing to both men and woman. Piet is a hedonist who gives as much pleasure as he takes. He determines that he's not going to push his young charge to overcome his agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder until Egbert himself shows that he's ready to tackle his fears. In the meantime, he has to fend off the advances of one of the Vermeulen-Sickerts' daughters, he captivates Egbert's mother Jacobina while teaching her to value herself as a sexual being, and he gives Vermeulen-Sickerts father Maarten the joy and appreciation he craves despite his biblical denial of self.The interpersonal interactions are fantastic here but what really shines is the critique of class distinction. The gulf between upstairs and downstairs is wide but not unbridgeable, as Piet shows through his accumulation of great appreciation for the sensuality of good food, fine furnishings, and other assorted trappings of wealth coupled with his savvy in negotiating belowstairs and captivating the help equally as much as he does the wealthy Vermeulen-Sickerts. There is a real skewering here, biting social satire coupled with a blush-inducing, racy, graphic sexuality and appreciation for carnality.But Piet's charmed interlude with the Vermeulen-Sickerts' must come to an end and the second part of the novel finds him heading to South Africa via ship and continuing his irrepressible social climbing, still looking to make his fortune and secure the good life for himself. Life on-board the ship again highlights the huge gap between the fantastically wealthy and everyone else and Piet's natural charm and sexual appeal works on his behalf as the bridge between the two worlds once again.The book feels very episodic and the two parts, while similar in theme, don't hang together particularly well. Piet is not exactly a snake-oil salesman, in other words, he's genuinely likable enough, but I as a reader didn't feel as attracted to him as a character as his fellow characters did. And no matter how pleasurable a read this was (and it was the literary equivalent of a meringue), the ending made me want to throw the book against a wall. Nothing in this world makes me seethe more than the three unexpected little words this book ended with: "To be continued." Had there been more of a resolution, I'd have been perfectly happy reading the next in the series. As it is, I'll have to see if my curiousity about Piet's further adventures trumps my pique.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing 8 months ago
History of a Pleasure Seeker is a lovely and well-written with all the eroticism, bodice-ripping, fly-bursting activity you'd expect from its title. It manages all of these things and yet is also literary, a quintessentially picaresque offering. Sex is all about the novel, yet it is well-written and often very funny (just like real life). Mason writes beautifully and this interwoven story of the risk-taking of its main character and that of its patriarch is excellent fun.Piet, the new tutor for the Vermeulen-Sickerts family's troubled young son, appears on the scene - a highly attractive 24-year-old with loads of charisma. He is instantly a magnet for all the attention, but especially that of the matriarch, Jacobina, and the patriarch, Maarten. For Jacobina, untouched by her husband for dozens of year, Piet brings a rousing sexual affair carried on under the noses of the entire family and awakening a new person in a frustrated lady. For Maarten, Piet is the possible saviour of his young heir and a person with whom he feels a deep kinship. From the start of his fortune in shipping ice to its growth through the luxury hotel business, Maarten has made his own way in life - never fearing risk, grabbing onto all life has to offer. The daughters in the family are less well-drawn - more like pieces of furniture in the drawing room than actual people.There is also the world of downstairs with its own set of complications and sexual intrigues. And there is Piet who travels ambiguously between both worlds slightly above the fray - until he isn't.I wasn't very satisfied with the ending, which seemed a bit pat and even more rushed - as if the author thought he'd run out of story. Maybe he had, but this could have gone on much longer and I would have been even more entertained. Recommended.
Dorritt on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The fact that this novel is framed as a sort of journal presumably excuses the author from having to produce a single arching narrative, which is good because History of a Pleasure Seeker has a decidedly episodic feel. The first episode, in which our handsome and charismatic hero, Piet Barol, becomes tutor at the home of a well-to-do Dutch family at the turn of the 20th century, is definitely the most complete and entertaining of the episodes. Piet¿s challenge is to navigate the social and sexual hazards of Amsterdam's upper class while simultaneously liberating his pupil from the horrific grip of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This part of the story is feels fully fleshed out and is rather engaging.The second episode, in which our hero travels to Cape Town on a luxury liner, is where things start to fall apart. The author seems to believe that providing characters with backstories automatically endows them psychological depth, but despite many dull pages of explication, the characters in this episode remain stubbornly plastic and unconvincing. The plots/themes that are introduced in this section (how will Barol¿s guilt over what happened in Amsterdam affect him? Will he ever acknowledge Didier's tenderness? Will he ever pay for the consequences of his actions?) feel contrived and uncomfortably unresolved.And then comes episode three, in which our hero - after hundreds of pages of resisting love and temptation ¿ succumbs to both all at once, for no particular reason, over the span of about 3 pages, to a character who qualifies as ¿minor¿ at best, which just feels preposterous. Not sure whether Knopf rushed this to press or the author, Richard Mason, just got lazy, but if one of my literature students submitted for grading an ending this sloppy and abrupt, I¿d give them and "incomplete" and make them rewrite it.This is a challenging book to summarize. It's being marketed as a sexual romp but it doesn't really contain enough sex to be a romp (people *think* about sex a great deal, but rarely act on their impulses), nor yet quite enough plot to justify it as a novel. Parts of it are interesting ¿ especially the first part of the book, which provides some interesting insights to what life was like for upper class Europeans during the turn of the century. But taken as a whole, I can¿t find a lot of reasons to justify this as worth the investment of time it takes to read it.
lauriebrown54 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The pleasure seeker of the title is young Piet Berol, but he is far from the only one. Almost everyone in the novel is a pleasure seeker in one way or another. And while the first thing the title brings to mind is sex- and there is plenty of that, written in terms that rise to near Bulwar-Lytton-esque heights- Berol and the others seek all sorts of pleasure: fine food and drink, beautiful clothing, jewels, objects d¿art, music, even the everyday pleasures of soft, clean sheets and hot baths. Berol, a dirt poor but handsome and smart young man, is hired as tutor to a lad who suffers from what seems to be a mix of OCD and agoraphobia with dashes of schizophrenia. The boy has refused to step outside the house for years, and his father, one of the richest men in Amsterdam, wants him cured. Berol is a quick study of humans, and charms his way into the house, into the hearts- and sometimes into other places- of the family and servants, and, he feels, into eventual fortune. The best laid plans can go awry, though, and Berol takes a lot of chances; I found myself frequently thinking ¿No, no, no, you idiot!¿ But Berol always seems to land on his feet, unbelievably so. After leaving Amsterdam, he ends up on the luxury liner Eugenie heading to South Africa to seek his fortune. Here he has more adventures, missteps and saves. The ending is rather inconclusive, but apparently the author plans a sequel or two. The writing is lovely, if slightly overblown in a few places. The author excels at description of both people and things. It¿s all very smooth and sleek, with no jarring notes. The characters all seem to revolve around Berol in one way or another, but this I think is intentional; to him, that is what they actually do. He is a genius at figuring out how to move people into doing what he wishes. He is not mean or cruel by any means; he does not wish to hurt people. It¿s hard to really like him, but it¿s almost impossible to dislike him. The character I actually found myself liking the most was Didier Loubat, footman in the house in Amsterdam and later steward on the Eugenie, who becomes Berol¿s best friend and who nurses a secret love for him. While he is a pleasure seeker like all the rest, he takes risks for Berol, pays for those risks, and yet is willing to do it all again. I will definitely be looking for the sequel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this book very much, good adaption of thetime period and class distinction. Well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this novel unique and well-crafted and I will read the sequel, if it comes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a story about a boy so beautiful, everyone wants him, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Boring, boring.
bbb57 More than 1 year ago
I really can't explain why I loved this book, but I absorbed it. It was so vivid, so full of razor sharp emotion, I could not put it down. It is beautifully written, sophisticated and yet vulgar at times. I can only hope that the character of Piet Barol will continue into new "pleasures".
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opinionatedinandfromNYC More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, even if it is a bagatelle...apparently, I hope, one of a series in the further adventures or Piet Barol. It drives you to turn the page to keep up with this most interesting and daring of lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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sandiek More than 1 year ago
It is 1907, and Piet Barot has come to Amsterdam to make his fortune. He has applied to be the tutor to the ten year old son of the fabulously wealthy Vermeulen-Sickerts family. Piet is moderately well-educated, can play the piano adequately and can sing. But his real assets are his looks and his ability to charm. His mother was a singer before marrying his father, and raised him to have the manners and knowledge that a wealthy young man would have. Piet is successful in getting the job, and uses it as a station to improve his lot. He charms each member of the family. Maarten is a successful businessman, but one who also made his way to the top and he sees himself in Piet. The two daughters of the family try to play with Piet as they do their suitors but he is able to avoid that trap and instead become their friend. The mother, Jacobina, is attracted to Piet, and he plays on that attraction to solidify his position. Piet is also, after many months, able to free the son from the phobias that have restricted his life. Mason has created a character that will long remain in the reader's mind, as they try to determine if he is an admirable figure or a scoundrel. Piet shows flashes of both, along with a steely determination to live life on his own terms and use all his strengths to make his way in the world. This book is recommended for readers interested in the golden age of Europe and the way the upper class lived.
magggie More than 1 year ago
good read . look forward to the next installment----- I hope
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book move slowly and methodically through the life of the key participant as a tutor to a rich family in Amersterdam. The story of him on the ocean liner to Africa was a bit unreal. Sex scenes with the mother were well done. Actually would have liked more or that. Really disappointed to have book end with "To Be Continued"