At the end of Richard Flanagan’s new novel, the protagonist, a failed novelist called Kif Kehlmann, reflects that experience is the ‘most illusory of art’s myths, the nonsense that we must go beyond ourselves to discover the world’, when in fact ‘all the time it’s only by going within ourselves that we discover the truth of anything’. The banality of this sentiment – with its ring of daytime TV evangelism – conceals the extent to which this gets to the heart of Flanagan’s fictive preoccupations. His previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), was also concerned with the distinction between external experience (the brutality of war) and interior reflection (the recollections of an army surgeon). This desire to preserve the division between the material and the spiritual is what drives some of the more compelling passages in Flanagan’s fiction, but it is also responsible for the uneven quality of his prose. Imaginative authenticity, for Flanagan, always seems to trump style.
Flanagan has spoken in interviews about the autobiographical roots of First Person. The plot, which centres on an aspiring novelist who becomes a ghostwriter, is based on his own experience of doing exactly that. In 1991, unable to finish his first novel, Flanagan took on a job ghostwriting the memoirs