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Review: History of a Pleasure Seeker, by Richard Mason
Knopf, 2012. 277 pp. $26

Piet Barol, a young man from Leiden who appreciates the fine things he can’t afford, has everything and nothing going for him. He has no accomplishments or talents, save an ability to draw and a decent singing voice; no bloodlines to boast of; and his meager wardrobe consists of more-or-less presentable finery he’s bought second-hand (from university students in hock up to their eyeballs). These are rickety assets on which to build one’s fortune in 1907, but Piet won’t settle for less than the life to which he plans to become accustomed. And he figures that he’ll win the day through charm, manners, good looks and, most important, his conceit that he can get anyone to like him.

Photocrom print of Nieuwmarkt en Waag, Amsterdam, between 1890 and 1905 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons).

Photocrom print of Nieuwmarkt en Waag, Amsterdam, between 1890 and 1905 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons).

Accordingly, when Mr. and Mrs. Vermeulen-Sickerts, pillars of Amsterdam merchant wealth, interview Piet in their sumptuous home as a prospective tutor for their young son, Piet boldly (but with proper deference and discretion) acts as if he belongs. He has no other prospects, and if he’s turned down, has no idea what he’ll do. On the other hand, he has no experience dealing with children, was himself a mediocre scholar, and, what’s more, the Vermeulen-Sickerts are deliberately vague when describing Egbert, their son. Through tactful questioning, Piet learns that the boy never goes outside and has a particular way of relating to others. Nevertheless, the Vermeulen-Sickerts expect that Piet will “cure” Egbert, which the young man from Leiden promises to do. So they hire him–upon which he asks for, and receives, a raise.

Naturally, the situation presents other perils. The Vermeulen-Sickerts have two beautiful, marriageable daughters, spoiled young women who immediately set upon Piet’s destruction. The younger, Louisa, cold and devious, suspects him as a fake and invents ways to trip him up, starting with the first meal he shares with the family:

Piet took in the handwritten menu in front of him, the four crystal vases of orange roses that decorated the table, the two silver dishes piled high with blood oranges on the sideboard, and felt wonderfully proud of himself. If Louisa had expected him to be confounded by the oysters or the langoustines or the quail à la minute, she was disappointed–because [his mother] had foreseen just this eventuality and twice a year had served Piet the delicacies of her youth so that he might dine in sophisticated company one day, without shame.

The elder daughter, Constance, flirts with him for the pleasure of rousing an attraction that she can then reject (and for which he’d be fired, should he pursue her in any way). The butler and footman would like to cozy up to him too–his looks attract both men and women–and the lady of the house seems available as well. What’s a fellow to do? Win them all over, but without compromising himself or his ambitions.

Rest assured that in this picaresque, often hilarious tale, our hero has plenty of erotic adventures, all graphically described, and sexual tension hums in the background, even–especially–when everybody’s fully clothed. But if Piet Barol were merely a hedonist on the make, The History of a Pleasure Seeker would be far less interesting than it is. Rather, Mason has thought about how being surrounded by exquisite sculptures, eating foie gras off Sèvres china, and soaking in a hot bath for the first time can change a person’s outlook.

In doing so, he’s underlined a forgotten point about the modern age: It wasn’t so long ago that the simplest luxuries were beyond any but the very rich. We take that for granted, because today, they’re commonplace. But have we deadened ourselves to the real pleasure they give, and does that mean we have to seek greater and greater novelty to arouse our senses?

Moreover, Piet’s presence changes his employers’ lives too, because he’s a reminder of the physical and emotional intimacy they’ve cast away in exchange for creature comforts. As such, The History of a Pleasure Seeker examines social class and how the need to be superior exacts a price from those who fall victim to it, a theme reminiscent of novels by Edith Wharton and Henry James.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.