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Joanna Scott: De Potter’s Grand Tour

Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Eleghem was a historical character. We have his obituary (scroll down). He was known for his travel agency, which organised extensive tours for rich US tourists in Europe and the Middle East. He also acquired many antiquities from archeological sites, particularly in North Africa. These were often acquired illegally. However, he donated his collection to the University of Pennsylvania (see this site, for example) so, though archaeologists might bemoan their placing in context, at least they were available for study. We also know that he disappeared mysteriously at sea, his body never found. Joanna Scott has used a variety of documents, including some diaries recently found, to recreate his life but also to add the novelist’s touch to supply the missing details.

We know that he disappears, from the beginning of the book, as we follow him as he plans to take a ship which neither his wife nor his company expect him to be taking. But we also learn, gradually, how he got to that position. He seemed to be descended, perhaps through an illegitimate line, from Louis de Potter, a Belgian nationalist and one of the founders of the modern Belgian state. (This is later questioned and, as with other aspects of his character, the questioning is questioned.) Though he is proud to claim descent from his famous ancestor, it seems that the legitimate descendants of Louis de Potter refused to have anything to do with this side of the family. We learn little about his early life, except that he seems to have been in the Belgian army. It was while in the army that he went to Algeria and acquired a fascination for North Africa. He then decided to emigrate to the United States. He clearly has some money as he does not seem to need money urgently. He starts in real estate speculation but that does not go too well before teaching foreign languages, particularly French. (However, he is not very good, as he makes the masculine noun oiseau (bird) feminine.) He teaches at various schools, before setting up his travel agency.

At first he travels to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. By this time he is engaged to the woman who will become his wife, Amy, whose name he will change to Aimée. Only later do we learn about his mysterious three month journey. He spends considerable time in Algeria, particularly in El Kef, where he meets Alexandre Bourgault (also a historical character), a photographer. The two become close friends, till they have a falling out over the price of Bourgault’s photographs. However, it is his Oriental (i.e. Middle East) tours that will help to make de Potter’s name. The company does very well, so much so that the couple are well off and they can afford to educate their son, Victor, well. Indeed, we learn that they decide to move to France, telling no-one in advance, not even Victor, and they buy a nice house in Cannes which Aimée will have renovated. Aimée seems to be a good wife, accompanying him and helping him with the tours and even conducting some on her own. He clearly loves her.

We have been following his tours, generally successful, though occasionally unsuccessful and, towards the end, disastrous. However, in the latter part of the book, we are mainly following him as he sets out on his fateful journey. Scott keeps us guessing, as she plies us with details of this journey – the people he meets, minor events. At the same time, we also learn what happens after his disappearance and how Aimée copes, unaware of what happened to him and, more importantly, why, struggling with sorting out his financial affairs and learning of his financial problems. She is also surprised that he has prefigured his death, by stating that a monument should be constructed to him, if he is lost at sea. His debts have, in part been occasioned by his extravagant purchases for his collection held at the University of Pennsylvania and which he clearly wants to be the legacy by which he will be remembered. Indeed, we continue to follow the story of Aimée till she dies.

Is he a fraud? This is the issue that Scott teases us with. It certainly seems possible that he has exaggerated some of his claims, such as his relationship to Louis de Potter and his degrees and concealed his financial affairs from others, particularly Aimée. His collection, which is later sold to the Brooklyn Museum (see pp 7, 8 and 22), may contain forgeries, though clearly, if it does, this was done through ignorance (there is a telling scene on this towards the end of the book) rather than malice. Yet, on the other hand, he clearly tries very, very hard to provide a first-class tour, often going way above the call of duty to make the journey worthwhile for his clients. He seems to be a loving husband and father. While the amassing of his collection is clearly, at least partially, done by illegal means, he certainly was not alone in so doing at that period. Moreover, he does not seem to be doing it to hoard for himself. Even if his loan of the collection to the University may be somewhat self-centred, in that he hopes he will be remembered for it, at least it is available for others. And he continues to add to it during his life, often at great cost.

He was an expert at giving the impression that he was never disappointed and had grown so used to affecting an impenetrable superficiality that he had forgotten that there was more to him. This, indeed, sums up the character of Armand de Potter, a man who is not quite what he seems and who often tries to be what he is not, in distinct contrast to his wife, who is very much what she seems to be. Once again, Joanna Scott produces a wonderful subtle and shaded work that is a joy to read and that tells its story gently but very well. I can highly recommend it.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux