Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker seduces from page one. A lighthearted follow-up to 2009’s Natural Elements and set during the Belle Époque, this lushly told story of a beautiful young man’s attempts to get ahead teases the imagination from its first baiting sentence.
Piet Barol, dark-haired, blue-eyed, lovely-lipped, leaves his meager world of outhouses, cold baths and boredom for a chance at luxury in Amsterdam as live-in tutor to a hotel magnate’s son. Not above using his many charms to get ahead, Piet has a flirtatious interview with the lady of the house and quickly secures his position. From there, he gently jolts the lives of family and servant alike, launching an affair with his new employer’s wife, sharing hot baths with a handsome footman and shaking up the self-assured superiority of the magnate’s nervy daughters.
What follows is a celebration of sensuality remarkable for both its employment of every one of the senses and its relative lack of actual sex. Mason achieves great mileage from the simplest detail. Piet is opportunistic and his interests are prurient, but his wrongdoing is imbued with innocence. The message behind the playfulness is sweet and stirring: Pleasure is a balm for the soul. Piet’s sensibilities, shaped by his late singer mother, affect even his 10-year-old charge, Egbert, an obsessive-compulsive musical genius chained to the rigid fugues of Bach.
The novel isn’t perfect—one significant character’s turnaround feels far too complete and abrupt—but it is fast-moving and never dull. Perhaps most enjoyable is its subtle social combat: Reading between the lines is the norm for these characters, and the arrows Piet shoots leave his prey delightedly breathless while he gets what he wants. Aware of his power, he is nevertheless unaware of the extent of his impact. In the end, the novel’s confidence is as strong as its hero’s. One feels lucky to have brushed against it for a while.