In Bed with a Tightrope Walker

History of a Pleasure Seeker, by Richard Mason. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011.

At seventeen, Richard Mason set out to write his first and most well-known novel, The Drowning People, which has to date sold a combined total of more than 5 million copies in more than twenty countries. An Oxford graduate, the South African-born Mason has lived in the UK since the age of ten, and his works of fiction, which include Us and The Lighted Rooms, are intimate explorations of the interconnections between the individual and society; the crosscurrents of sexual attraction and desire and their relation to memory; and the intensely personal question of locating the self across historical, socio-economic and cultural lines.

While a focus on interiority and an unmistakable storytelling guile remain central to Mason’s latest work, his picaresque (adventurous, episodic) form poses interesting problems relating to plausible plot and character development, and begs other appealing questions: What are we to make of desire? Can desire circumvent wealth and class and bring people from different worlds together? How are we defined as characters in the narrative of our lives through the need for human connection? But, first things first: What is History of a Pleasure Seeker about, and more urgently, why should we care?

The novel’s opening sentence introduces us to the protagonist: “The adventures of adolescence had taught Piet Barol that he was extremely attractive to most women and to many men”. At 24, the son of a singing-teacher mother and lowly bureaucrat father in Leiden, Piet bids farewell to the “drabness of the provinces”, and seeks his fortune in Amsterdam in 1909, the Belle Époque in full swing. Pragmatic about his good looks, the cocksure, eloquent, bisexual Piet has only the money in his pocket and “real faith in his ability to make people love him”. He is to tutor Egbert, the only son of Maarten and Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts, who, along with their daughters Constance and Louisa, are a “colourful”, “modern” and “very rich” family living “on the grandest stretch of the grandest canal in Amsterdam”.

History of a Pleasure Seeker does a sterling job in drawing us into the complex realm of adultery, insightfully illuminating the fault lines between sex, money and power in the glory days of European history. Mason immediately establishes our impression of the roguish Piet as a worldly, confident sensualist, a man ruled by Eros. A talented draughtsman, pianist and vocalist, Piet’s body “demand[s] pleasure of him and reward[s] his efforts to seek it” from an early age. After settling into the magnificent Vermeulen-Sickerts mansion, Piet realises that

[t]he ambitions he had nursed privately – of travel and comfort and elegance; of escaping for ever the straitened gentility of his youth – were plausible now, seized from the realm of fantasy by his own determination to act on his instincts.

While reading of Piet’s exploits one can virtually taste the sumptuous cuisine, hear the operatic overtures of Bizet and feel the sensations, impressions and intuitions of a young man a world apart, refusing to let the walls of class and status dictate his destiny. Preferring Bizet’s rich harmonies to the starkness of Bach, Piet becomes a houseguest, tutor, lover and confidant, “in thrall to powerful and conflicting impulses he could not resolve”. As a man who “like[s] to draw objects of beauty”, his “fine and instinctive appreciation” extends to beautiful women. Almost immediately, Piet seduces the repressed but alluring Jacobina Vermeulen-Sickerts, wife of the master of the house, her “nostalgia for the lost opportunities of her youth” awakened vigorously by his subtle advances.

Piet takes particular relish in his sexual exploits with Jacobina, initially entertaining “the tired protests of his conscience”, but soon after “throwing himself into sampling the many pleasures available to him”. As Piet “drenche[s] his quarry in sweet, permissive magic”, Jacobina’s husband Maarten, a wealthy hotelier and “fearless realist”, is blissfully ignorant of her burgeoning desire for another man, with Piet all too aware that he is cuckolding a powerful man.

While the love triangle between Piet, Jacobina and Maarten continues, the narrative acquires further depth through the dynamic interactions between the self-assured Piet and the vulnerable, insecure Egbert. Piet actively sets out to “cure” the troubled Egbert, whose agoraphobia prevents him from venturing outside, and Mason’s muscular and intricate prose relays the veritable chess game Piet engages in with the young Egbert, played out behind a door “cleverly hidden in the wallpaper”. In slowly accumulative detail – and with tremendous compassion – the “transcendent beauty” of music and art helps Piet to liberate Egbert’s “deeply private” “state of bondage”.

The love of music as expression of undisclosed desires is artfully employed by Mason as a motif for the manner in which we hide within art to protect ourselves from the truth, to quote Nietzsche. As the family and their visitor sit around the piano singing verses from various operas such as Carmen, Mason ratchets up the tension and intrigue, while explicating the suggestive thesis that life is shaped and defined by the various roles we perform for our own wellbeing and for the sake of others.

Mason employs the characters of the Vermeulen-Sickerts daughters, Constance and Louisa, to different ends. Akin to their mother’s feelings for Piet, the two sisters share the same fascination, with Constance enamoured of the rascal while Louisa knows that “something is not right” with him. She unwittingly stumbles onto evidence of her mother’s illicit lovemaking in the guise of a “green button lying on a blue carpet”, loosened from Jacobina’s apple-green velvet dress, a plot development which sets the rest of History of a Pleasure Seeker in motion. With references to Carmen and La Traviata, the latter “a story about disastrous liaisons between the classes, and the tragedies they lead to”, Mason primes us for the stained apple-green dress as metaphor. It is a cipher, both as code of sexual conduct and symbol of erotic yearning, and represents the excesses of the rich during the Belle Époque, the unsanctioned affiliations between those of different social classes.

Exposed as a cuckold, Piet boards the Eugenie on a trip to Cape Town. Watching a performance of Carmen on the Eugenie, Piet meets the amorous Stacy Meadows. Subsequently, Piet and Stacey book themselves into the Mount Nelson hotel, pretending to be the wealthy Vicomte and Vicomtesse Pierre de Barol. As she demands his fidelity to her alone, we see that Piet’s adventures have only just begun, and that his journey at the Cape and beyond is To Be Continued.

With this historico-fictional escapade at the height of European opulence and profligacy, Mason presents a story “truthful in its essential elements”, a soufflé of sexual awakening and desire. Contingently, the many erotic scenes in the novel are neither excessively gratuitous nor pornographic, nor do they appear without motivation. Corresponding to the delicate balancing act the author performs in juggling a multitude of encounters, dialogue, interior life and solemn reflection, along with moments of wicked humour, we at one point hear of a “miniature silver model of a man on a tightrope, balancing precariously”.

Whereas “[t]he way the man was about to fall off his rope, and yet never would, seemed to Piet to speak to his own situation”, if one were to find fault with the novel, it would be that Mason’s characterisation of some characters – including the titular rake Piet – is contradictory and somewhat cheerless. In a telling moment about halfway in, Piet is balanced “precariously on one leg…” Mason never really achieves this “precarious” balance between Piet, a veritable funambulist as an opportunistic gold-digger, “like a barbarian at the gates of Rome” on the one hand, and a moral, righteous person on the other. Resultantly, the reader walks a tightrope between sympathy and occasional exasperation, between gleeful indulgence in the historical rendition of opulent Amsterdam and frustration with the author at the slipperiness of his protagonist and opacity of his motivations.

The supporting cast of characters, the servants in the Vermeulen-Sickerts household, are also often compelling yet sadly underutilised. We only superficially get to know Mr Blok, a self-loathing “reader of chivalric fiction”; Naomi De Leeuw, who “clings to her elder sister Annetjie, the fount of all affection and knowledge”; Agneta Hemels, who “wished for herself a comfortable life and was determined to get it”; and Didier Loubat, arguably the character Piet touches most deeply through the bonds of friendship, at the Vermeulen-Sickerts mansion and on the Eugenie.

At the end of the day, as the starting point of a chronicle that traces the flourishing sexual and economic opportunism of South Africa at the turn of the century – with remarkable parallels to the present – History of a Pleasure Seeker is more than just another lusty romp or picaresque tale of adventure and diversion. While not quite on the same level as Candide, Dangerous Liaisons or Perfume, History of a Pleasure Seeker never condemns the desires of its characters, its vibrant vision of the self as gregarious “seeker” of pleasure – enraptured by an embodied existence and defined in relation to others – is consistently readable and always enjoyable. One walks away from this novel hoping to see Mason’s historiography branch out into hitherto unexplored terrain with the follow-up to this flawed yet wonderfully immersive novel and I, for one, cannot wait to read it.