A Brief History of Pleasure

Everywhere they’re talking about sexy books, and in a way, it’s funny to me. Erotica isn’t historically the most celebrated genre. If anything, it was the most reviled. Literature whose constitution offered frank sexual references for the purposes of social critique (as opposed to unabashed titillation) were often considered immoral pornography in polite society of the day; Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and The Canterbury Tales, just to name a few. But books written with the express purpose of sexual gratification? Puh-leese!

Now, some may argue that modern erotica is equally reviled, but for different reasons. Critics charge common iterations of the genre today with being poorly written, purple prose, over-dramatic, or one-dimensional. Agree or not, those are the allegations.

This spring I had the  enjoyment of reading the newest novel by Richard Mason, The History of a Pleasure Seeker. Equally unabashed as the most shameless erotica, yet as rich in its prose and characters and story as the likes of D.H. Lawrence might appreciate, The History follows dashing Piet Barol on escapades within a tumultuous Dutch estate after the twentieth century turned.

Tutor to the young, agoraphobic master of the estate, Barol discovers amongst his fellow servants, the lovely older sisters of his student, and the wealthy patriarch and matron, a wide berth of pleasures to be had. Pleasure, here, is not limited to evening trysts, however. No, it is discovered in the myriad senses of our humanity: exquisite cuisine, stunning art, lush music, haute couture. And they reveal themselves within the whirlwind of uncertainty in a severe market crash, and within that delicious tension between the serving and upper classes—a nexus Barol negotiates with impressive cunning and grace.

When I finished reading, I, like we all often do around here, wrote a short recommendation to hang from the bookshelf. So saucy, it reads still, Mmhmm…

I say still, because after a short weekend away from the store, I returned to learn my shelf-talker was pinched by some visiting friends of the author. The slip would be mailed to Mason so he could frame it in his house.

I smiled as I rewrote my short, simple recommendation for people to read this book. What a thing to do, I thought, to frame a little bit of paper with barely three words on it. Perhaps it goes without saying that an author indulges in any warm reception of his work. But to think of my purple cut of paper hanging somewhere in Richard Mason’s house now, I still smile: Pleasure might just be as simple or contrived as we make it.

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