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  • History of a Pleasure Seeker
  • Written by Richard Mason
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  • History of a Pleasure Seeker
  • Written by Richard Mason
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On Sale: February 07, 2012
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95752-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Piet Barol has an instinctive appreciation for pleasure and a gift for finding it. When his mother dies, Piet applies for a job as tutor to the troubled son of Europe's leading hotelier—a child who refuses to leave his family’s mansion on one of Amsterdam’s grandest canals. As Piet enters this glittering world, he learns its secrets and finds his life transformed.
 
A brilliantly written portrait of the senses, History of a Pleasure Seeker is an opulent, romantic coming-of-age drama set at the height of Europe’s Belle Époque, written with a lightness of touch that is wholly modern and original.

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.”
Richard Mason

About Richard Mason

Richard Mason - History of a Pleasure Seeker

Photo © David Woolfall

Richard Mason was born in South Africa in 1978 and lives in New York City.  His first novel, The Drowning People, published when he was twenty-one and still a student at Oxford, sold more than a million copies worldwide and won Italy’s Grinzane Cavour Prize for Best First Novel.  He is also the author of Natural Elements, which was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009 and longlisted for the IMPAC Prize and the Sunday Times Literary Award.  History of a Pleasure Seeker is his fourth novel. 
 
In 1999, with Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mason started the Kay Mason Foundation (www.kaymasonfoundation.org), which helps disadvantaged South Africans access quality education.  He is the recipient of the Inyathelo Award for Philanthropy.

Praise

Praise

“Terrific. . . . The best new work of fiction to cross my desk in many moons.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post 
  
“Mason’s novel is a gorgeous confection. . . . Piet is the rare character—the rare being—whose unfailing charm and luck only make us cheer him on more.” —The New York Times 
 
 “Just try to resist. . . . A Continental Downton Abbey plus sex, with a dash of Dangerous Liaisons tossed in.” —Seattle Times
 
“This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Think Balzac but lighter and sexier—an exquisitely laced corset of a novel with a sleek, modern zipper down the side.” —Marie Claire
 
“Superb. . . . [Mason’s] gorgeous, precise descriptions . . . mirror Amsterdam’s singular combination of material opulence and Calvinist severity. . . . After this auspicious introduction, many readers will be eager for the next volume.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“[An] up-close mix of luxury, labor and longing—plus a country house's-worth of burbling romance.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“One of the best three books of the year.” —The Independent (London)

“A sharply written story of love, money and erotic intrigue pulsing behind the staid canal fronts of nineteenth century Amsterdam. Mason’s hero is amoral but irresistible. I was gripped till the very last page. Thank God there’s a sequel.” —Daisy Goodwin, author of The American Heiress
 
“If Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had a love child who grew up reading nothing but Edith Wharton and Penthouse Forum—well, that person might be almost as wry, sexy, and knowing a writer as Richard Mason.” —The Boston Globe
 
“A picaresque novel in the 18th-century tradition of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones. . . . Piet is a charmer.” —The Washington Times
 
“Piet Barol is a pure pulse of young manhood; not an everyman, but perhaps the fantasy everyman that every man would like to be.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“[A] Belle Époque valentine.” —Vogue
 
“An enthralling, perfectly placed romp that breathes new life into the picaresque genre. . . . Piet Barol . . . looks set to become the star of a whole new series of books.” —The Observer (London)
 
“Exquisite. . . . History of a Pleasure Seeker is a showcase for [Mason’s] nimble writing, but also extends his storytelling prowess.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
 
“[An] artful evocation of the European Belle Époque.” —The New Yorker
 
“Mason’s new novel—elegant, upholstered and, for all the sex, well-behaved—is part of a trend . . . for historical novels that seem not only set but written in the past—modern tracings, skillfully done, of old tropes, old forms.” —The Sunday Times (London)
 
“An elegantly written, sexy novel.” —The Daily Beast
 
“Edith Wharton would be impressed. . . . Lovely and rich.” —Entertainment Weekly
 
“Mason presides over History of a Pleasure Seeker like a benign god, rescuing his confused but well-meaning characters when they seem doomed and affectionately watching from a distance as they scramble to make satisfying lives.” —The Columbus Dispatch
 
“A masterpiece. Like Henry James on Viagra. Not only gripping as hell, but brilliantly arranges that the imagined world of Maarten and Jacobina’s household sits entirely within Amsterdam of the Belle Époque. I thought Piet was wonderfully drawn—roguish and yet wholly sympathetic.” —Alex Preston, author of This Bleeding City

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

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.

About the Guide

“Sex is everywhere in History of a Pleasure Seeker, and it is both well described and very funny.... An enthralling, perfectly placed romp that breathes new life into the picaresque genre.” —The Observer (UK)
 
An opulent, romantic novel, written in the grand manner, set at the height of Europe's belle époque, about a handsome young man in his mid-twenties—a golden boy who secures a position as a tutor in the household of one of the most prominent bourgeois families in Amsterdam—and his entry into a world of moneyed glamour and dangerous temptations.
 
Piet Barol, blue-eyed, dark-haired, seductive, and seductively charged, enters this magnificent world and inexorably learns the hidden truths of this vastly rich, secretive family and, through the course of the novel, is profoundly transformed as his charm and sexual pull transform each of their lives. In the heady exhilaration of this new world, amid delights and temptations that Piet has only dreamed of, he discovers that some of the intimacies he has cultivated are dangerous liaisons indeed.... By the author of The Drowning People (“A literary sensation” —The New York Times Book Review) and Natural Elements (“A magnum opus” —The New Yorker).

About the Author

Richard Mason was born in South Africa in 1978 and lives in New York City.  His first novel, The Drowning People, published when he was twenty-one and still a student at Oxford, sold more than a million copies worldwide and won Italy’s Grinzane Cavour Prize for Best First Novel.  He is also the author of Natural Elements, which was chosen by The Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009 and longlisted for the IMPAC Prize and the Sunday Times Literary Award.  History of a Pleasure Seeker is his fourth novel.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann; Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller; The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

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