American memoirist, novelist, and poet Floyd Skloot nimbly crosses the gorge between fact and fiction in his uniquely inventive The Phantom of Thomas Hardy. Part travelogue, part memoir, part novel, this semi-autobiographical and semi-biographical endeavor is multifaceted and blends the various categories so thoroughly that the result is comparable to a rich, smooth-textured cocktail with a faintly peculiar flavor.
Ever since 1968, when Skloot began his college thesis on the novels of Thomas Hardy, he has immersed himself in the life and works of the renowned English writer. Reading and rereading Hardy’s own poetry and prose, as well as numerous biographies and studies of his life, work, and place, Skloot has gleaned a great deal about his literary hero. In The Phantom of Thomas Hardy, perhaps most aptly described as a fictional memoir, Skloot—“a sixty-four-year-old man who has been reading Hardy for 70 percent of his life”—draws on these forty-eight years of knowledge to offer insight into the author’s relationships and life choices.
The story is centered on Skloot’s vacation to England with his wife, Beverly—a bona fide two-and-a-half week trip they took in the spring of 2012. As they tour the southern parts of the country, visiting locations that played an important role in Hardy’s life and observing the “wild and unwelcoming, thorny and somber” landscape and the sometimes “majestic,” sometimes “bleak” buildings to which Hardy “had given vivid fictional life,” Skloot deviates from what might otherwise have been a travelogue to insert biographical details about Hardy, to speculate about his messy “secret life” and his “pain and despondency over love,” and to insert imagined details.
While “tracing the history” of Hardy along South Street in Dorchester, Skloot poses for a photograph and encounters an apparition of Hardy. The man who “never liked to touch or be touched” taps Skloot twice and remarks, “Something I missed.” The intriguing statement injects a sense of purpose into the narrative, urging the dogged narrator “to move beyond the boundaries of Thomas Hardy’s work in pursuit of truths that might lay buried within it.” So begins his “investigative” journey into the shrouded life of Hardy to figure out exactly what Hardy may have missed. As Skloot experiences firsthand Hardy’s birthplace and Max Gate, the Victorian home he designed, he learns from local residents of Dorset, many of whom claim to have distant connections to Hardy, hitherto undocumented tales concerning Hardy’s intemperate love life—such as hearsay that Tryphena Sparks, to whom Hardy had referred as his “lost prize,” was purportedly his lover, had borne him a child, and was “the illegitimate daughter of his mother’s illegitimate daughter.”
The Phantom of Thomas Hardy is prefaced by a note to the reader regarding the unreliable autobiography (masquerading as biography) Hardy composed when he was nearing the end of his life. Published under his wife’s name after his death, it was “virtually a fictional biography, though offered as fact.” The reliability of the narrator is equally questionable here. During the previous two decades, Skloot has experienced numerous hallucinatory episodes, which he terms “visitations.” Experiences include a deer morphing into a raging “Paul Gauguin wearing a saffron-colored shirt,” a buck becoming Vladimir Nabokov stalking “a spring azure butterfly” near his blueberry bushes, and an umbrella becoming a bowler hat resting on the head of T.S. Eliot. Everyone from Ezra Pound to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia has visited him. Even American baseball player Pee Wee Reese has been known to show up and share his views on pain, stability, and the benefits of uninterrupted sleep. According to Skloot, these visitations “go beyond the hallucinatory because they had content, had depth.”
It turns out that twenty-five years earlier Skloot contracted a devastating illness that damaged his neurological functioning. It took him “fifteen years to walk without a cane” and “a year to be able to read books with even minimal comprehension.” He’s been working ever since to “re-integrate” himself. The intimation is that these visitations, including this newest apparition, are a product of Skloot’s damaged brain, although the fact that his wife has had visitations of her own—mostly “animal visits” such as “horned owls calling” to her and deer standing in the exact spot as “where a dowser had told her” to drill a well—adds unnecessary confusion to the story.
Also at the heart of the book is Skloot’s own personal struggle in the aftermath of his illness, which has forced him “to evolve a new way of writing, of speaking.” He tries to draw many parallels between Hardy’s life and his, even seeing his own parents’ “unhappiness enacted throughout Hardy’s work.” But possibly his strongest connection to Hardy is his recently deceased mentor, Robert Russell, a college professor who “helped give shape” to Skloot’s life.
Russell’s voice was so deeply lodged in my memory that its sound survives all the brain damage that ensued, and often returns in dreams.
Still grieving the death of Russell, the man responsible for introducing him to the work of Hardy, Skloot’s journey to England is perhaps part of the mourning process—his attempt to connect with the person he was before he got sick, and a way of bringing closure to his relationship with his mentor.
An appealing and uncommon fusion of biography and personal narrative, The Phantom of Thomas Hardy is also a thoughtful and gratifying journey of discovery.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of a suspense novel, and editor of six literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. His book reviews for the Lancashire Evening Post are syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.