Joanna Scott: De Potter’s Grand Tour


The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s De Potter’s Grand Tour. There has been some excitement this summer with all the new novels coming out late summer/autumn. These include novels by Martin Amis, Peter Carey, Michel Faber, Richard Ford, Howard Jacobson, Kate Mosse, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Joseph O’Neill, Marilynne Robinson, Will Self, Jane Smiley, Ali Smith, Colm Tóibín and Sarah Waters. While I shall certainly read some of these (and have read one), the two I have most been looking forward to, the new Geoff Nicholson and this one, seem to have been lost in the shuffle. This is a pity as these two writers are both superb writers (but very different, of course) and I would have thought that they should be high on the list of books to read this autumn. But then I often feel that I am out of touch with the literary marketplace.

De Potter’s Grand Tour is the story of a historical character. Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Eleghem was a Belgian who emigrated to the United States. There he set up a tour company, specialising in taking Americans to Europe and the Middle East. It was a highly successful company. He also collected antiquities, often obtained illegally, which he lent to the University of Pennsylvania and hoped would make his name. Though the collection was subsequently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, where it still is, it has not really made his name at all. We learn from the beginning of the book that he disappears from on board a ship. The story tells of his life, primarily after his arrival in the United States but, at the same time, also tells of the events leading up to his disappearance and what happened to his family after this disappearance. Joanna Scott’s de Potter is a fascinating character, as we are left with doubts about him. Yes, he seems to be something of a fraud but how much of one was he? Did he really die or just disappear? What led him to either die or pretend to die? Was he a good man, a bad man or, like many of us, just something in between? It is an excellent story, with Scott having consulted diaries (presumably those of Aimée, de Potter’s wife) and even including photos, so we might call it a novelised biography but, clearly, with a novelist’s viewpoint and a novelist’s creative filling in of the gaps. Yes, do read some of the other books coming out this autumn but read this one as well, as you will certainly enjoy it and you will find much worthwhile to think about.

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