The author is bipolar and a compulsive writer. He disagrees with Stephen Fry’s belief that taking medication causes those creative surges to be lost. On the contrary, he believes calmness leads to greater creativity. However, it seems that the author had a jumbled up set of ideas and was in a hurry to write it. It starts off well as a ‘romp’ then seems to slow down and lose direction three quarters of the way through.
He set up the Kay Mason Foundation in memory of his sister, who committed suicide in 1986. The foundation pays for gifted South African children from poor backgrounds to attend the country’s top private schools. It has suffered setbacks: “They all started school in January 2003 and of course the Iraq War started in March and then the stock market crashed.” In its wake so did the rand, and the KMF was left with a 30 per cent shortfall in its budget.
In keeping with the period, Mason wrote the novel by hand, in an oversize hand-stitched leather-bound notebook bound in sky blue. “Microsoft Word is no good for fiction,” he said. “You don’t see the archaeology of the text.” It may explain why characters were not fully developed as editing is more difficult without a word processor. There are no sub plots and everything revolves around the main character. His exploits with a horse despite his inexperience are mentioned and then everything moves on. No aftermath. The massage scene shows no understanding of how massage works. His relationship with the boy he is tutoring could have been developed.
The main character, Piet, has no time for the simple-minded and religious. For him, Machiavelli is more realistic than the Sermon on Mount He fails to follow the advice of Epicurus – to consider the full consequences of a hedonistic act before embarking on it. I have heard the opinion that young men today are ‘all front’. They present themselves well, write impressive CVs but fail to deliver. They woo people by talking vacuously. Yet Piet was similar, even back then: ‘He was sure to be a success wherever he went.’ It is said of him: ‘Sensible men don’t dance like that.’
Maarten the boss and husband had no appetite for conversation and had made a vow after son was born with OCD – then referred to as Shadowers. He believed that God punishing him with money problems, spoke in typical Dutch Calvinist terms of ‘the centrality of his position in God’s plans’ and spend three hours in prayer each morning. There is a rare display of emotion on his part when he cries tears when son is freed from the Shadowers.
Mason researched the novel while living for months in Amsterdam. He selected as his key location a landmark house along the Gilded Curve that is now a museum, and interviewed the museum director at length. The house, at Herengracht 605, is five windows wide: given that town houses are built narrow (usually two windows wide) and high, this is a huge house, which is once described as ‘Sunday quiet.’
The sex scenes between Piet and his boss’s wife and graphically described: her conscience is stilled by two glasses of champagne; she talks of her ‘kitten’ and her ‘strawberry patch, he needs a book to hide his erection and muses that “God would not have created human bodies as he did if he disapproved of sexual pleasure.” When she missed church she called up him to perform a ‘service’ – cunnilingus.
Like many of his generation, he rejects labels like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, even ‘bi’. “The distinction between pornography and literary writing about a character’s erotic experience is psychological. As soon as the description degenerates into who-put-what-where, it’s useless. We want to know what people are feeling—emotionally and physically. (Yet this book reminds some of 1970s soft porn.) Mason goes on to say he doesn’t really believe in the concepts of straight or gay. “I’ve always felt tugged in both directions. At my wedding there were six of my ex-girlfriends. “Yet the straight sex was in great detail, whereas gay sex was so coy as to be irritating. Almost like two authors wrote different sections
Didier is saddened, after dalliances with Piet, that “Life would now return to snatched encounters, diverting in themselves but conducted without feeling.”
Blok the butler is an old letch and is described in such terms as ‘warm slime’ and is mindful of the prohibitions of Leviticus and St. Paul about homosexual acts.
Egbert discovers the healing power of music when it is not being played as a chore. Music adds to the sensuality of the book. “I get the emotional shape of a story in music,” Mason said. “Piet uses music to create an atmosphere in a room.” To please Jacobina upon their first meeting, he plays a Chopin nocturne and selections from Carmen; in an ironic bonding moment with her husband, he sings Bizet’s Pearl Fishers duet with Maarten.
Some of the incidents reflect incidents in real life. His grandfather saw a brown package floating past him in a river and he swam to retrieve it. It contained a British soldier’s pay packet, and he used the cash to book a third-class passage on a ship to England. He became friends with a boxer who upgraded him to first class and put him up at The Dorchester for a month.
The Panic of 1907 really happened and a committee was set sup to persuade the clergy to calm their congregations. Like our current crisis, lots of money was put in to shore up the system but, unlike now, bankers were trusted, as shown in a famous exchange of members of the Pujo Committee about the fundamentally psychological nature of banking—that it is an industry built on trust:
Untermyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?
Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.
Untermyer: Before money or property?
Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it … a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.
Ship cabins were booked permanently because people wanted to be able to travel whenever they wanted and didn’t want to be tied by waiting lists.
Piet makes promises at the end of the book which we know he can never keep.