Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What (who) I'm reading now

Richard Mason is an author whose dreams of being a famous writer came true unexpectedly early in life, proving both a burden and a blessing.

Born in South Africa, he moved with his family as a young boy to England. At the age of 18, while still in his first year at Oxford university, he wrote his first novel, The Drowning People. Published the following year, it became a literary phenomenon, selling 5 million copies in 20 languages and putting Mason into the spotlight of media attention, both acclaiming and critical.

Image source: www.flavorwire.com

Not too surprisingly, the mix of hype and expectations that followed effectively paralysed him as a writer. He had used the money from The Drowning People to set up a foundation in South Africa to pay for gifted children from poor backgrounds to attend privileged private schools. The pressure to produce another novel successful enough to sustain their futures led him to clinical depression and a breakdown.

His second novel, Us, was written under this pressure, to suit a commercial market dictated by a highly commercial American publisher offering a stellar advance. He said later that it nearly tore the soul out of the book and the heart out of him, and that it took him a long time to rediscover the joy of telling a story. 

But rediscover it he did, with his third novel, The Lighted Rooms, which really got me interested in Mason as an author. In this he wrote with amazing compassion and insight about ageing and Alzheimer's (in the shape of an engagingly dotty elderly central character) in a story that shifted from nursing homes to cutting-edge scientific research in present day Europe to Boer War concentration camps (drawing angry parallels in the process between the US destruction of Iraq and British atrocities in South Africa a century earlier).

And this brings me to his fourth and latest novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker, which I recently finished ...
Image source: www.richardmason.org

Set in Amsterdam in the early 1900s, the protagonist and pleasure-seeker of the title is Piet Barol, an ambitious and charming young man "extremely attractive to most women and to many men". Born to poverty but usefully educated by his French mother in the arts of piano-playing, sketching and seduction, he secures a place for himself as tutor to the troubled young son of a wealthy family in one of the finest mansions on Amsterdam's Gilded Curve.

Maarten Vermeulen-Sickert, his employer, is a hotel magnate with an appreciation of culture and the arts; his family, while close, is fraught with repressed desires. Gifted at sensing and meeting other people's needs while fulfilling his own at the same time, Piet earns Maarten's respect and trust whilst doing a fine job of freeing the libido of his wife and becoming indispensable in various ways to his children.

There are rich descriptions of the Vermeulen-Sickert's Amsterdam home, art collection and gilded life-style, interwoven with real historical events such as the Wall Street crash of 1907 and the opening of New York's Plaza Hotel. But it's the dynamics and nuances of the family's life and Piet's insidious but indelible impact on it that are so well written. Some of the most memorable (and amusing) scenes are his seduction through music - the refined drawing-room concerts in which Piet makes finely-considered judgements on matters of which piano key offers the best means for negotiating his tightrope path between eroticism and deception, Bizet or Chopin over Bach.

It's a nicely-plotted, very sexy novel, full of vivid characters and rich period atmosphere, and also very funny in parts. And as events in Amsterdam's Grachtengordel come to a climax in more ways than one, Piet inevitably meets his downfall yet lands on his feet as we know he will, and the last section of the book sees him on an ocean liner headed for Cape Town, his sights on a new world. The book ends with the words "To be continued" (when last have you seen that in a modern novel?) and they made my day - I can't wait for the next round of adventures of this character - who a Guardian reviewer has dubbed a sort of 'highly cultivated, bisexual Flashman' of the pre-first world war era! The same critic, incidentally, feels that Richard Mason is properly repaying with this novel the faith his publishers placed on him at the age of eighteen ...

Photographs taken in Amsterdam in February 2011

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