Christopher Nolan, Irish Author, Dies at 43
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: February 24, 2009
Christopher Nolan, an Irish writer who, mute and quadriplegic since birth, produced a highly praised volume of verse and short stories at 15 and went on to publish a prize-winning autobiography, “Under the Eye of the Clock,” died Friday in Dublin. He was 43 and lived in Sutton, near Dublin.
His death was confirmed by a condolence message from the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. His family told the Irish and British press that he died after food became trapped in his airway.
Oxygen deprivation during a difficult delivery left Mr. Nolan physically helpless, able to communicate with family members only through eye movements. At 11, supplied with a new drug to relax his neck muscles, he began writing with a “unicorn stick” strapped to his forehead, pecking a letter at a time on a typewriter as his mother held his chin with her hands.
The brain that one doctor had predicted would remain infantile turned out to contain a distinctive literary voice awaiting release.
“My mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed, my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down in my lap,” he told The Observer of London in 1987. “Images gunfire across my consciousness and while trying to discipline them I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of my mind’s expanse.”
Christopher John Nolan was born in Mullingar, Ireland, “a gelatinous, moaning, dankerous baby boy,” as he put it in a poem. His parents, Joseph and Bernadette, worked a small farm in Corcloon, about 50 miles west of Dublin, and his father brought in extra income by working part time as a psychiatric nurse.
To keep the boy’s mind stimulated, his father told stories and read passages from Joyce, Beckett and D. H. Lawrence. His mother strung up letters of the alphabet in the kitchen, where she kept up a steady stream of conversation. His sister, Yvonne, two years older, sang songs and acted out skits. All three survive him.
“I was wanted dearly, loved dearly, bullied fairly and treated normally,” Mr. Nolan told The Christian Science Monitor in 1988.
After selling their farm, Mr. Nolan’s parents moved the family to a Dublin suburb in 1972 so that Christy, as he was called, could attend a remedial school. In 1979 he transferred to a local comprehensive school, where his classmates included members of the rock group U2. Their 2004 song “Miracle Drug,” with lyrics by Bono, was about Mr. Nolan.
With the unicorn stick, Mr. Nolan “gimleted his words into white sheets of life,” as he put it in “Under the Eye of the Clock.” Liberated, he spent feverish hours at the typewriter. “I bet you never thought you would be hearing from me!” he wrote to an aunt and uncle. In 1981 he published “Dam-Burst of Dreams,” a collection of poems, short stories and plays that impressed critics with its acrobatic wordplay and striking metaphors.
He enrolled in Trinity College Dublin, but left after a year to complete “Under the Eye of the Clock” (1987), an autobiography told in the third person through a narrator named Joseph Meehan. A best seller in Britain and the United States, it made good on the promise of his first book and won the Whitbread Prize, beating out works by the poet Seamus Heaney and the biographer Richard Ellmann.
Mr. Nolan then spent more than a decade writing his first novel, “The Banyan Tree” (1999), the multigenerational story of a dairy-farming family in his native county of Westmeath, seen through the eyes of its aging matriarch. It was inspired, he told Publisher’s Weekly, by the image of “an old woman holding up her skirts as she made ready to jump a rut in a field.” At his death, he was at work on a second novel.
A prominent Los Angeles producer wanted to make a film of Mr. Nolan’s life story. Mr. Nolan turned the offer down.
“I want to highlight the creativity within the brain of a cripple,” he wrote to the producer, “and while not attempting to hide the crippledom I want instead to filter all sob-storied sentiment from his portrait and dwell upon his life, his laughter, his vision, and his nervous normality. Can we ever see eye-to-eye on that schemed scenario?”