A voice from a mute world sings. Irish poet's prose captures Britain's Whitbread prize
HE was locked in a world of his own - unable, since birth, to control the spasms of his face and limbs, devoid of speech and strapped to a wheelchair. No one knew his precise thoughts, though family and friends insisted his brightly blinking eyes endlessly communicated with uncommon subtlety. Then, the door of his mute world swung open and, in his own words, there was a ``dam-burst of dreams.''
Ploddingly, painfully at first, Christopher Nolan, at age 11, learned to type. The arduous feat was achieved with a ``unicorn stick'' secured to his lolling, jerking head.
It had taken years of practice. No one thought he could ever manage what was, for him, such a superhuman task: It can still take up to a quarter of an hour just to type one word.
But he did. Now, at age 22, he is being hailed a literary genius.
Indeed, in the face of stiff competition, the young writer from Dublin has just captured Britain's coveted Whitbread Book of the Year prize - worth $35,400 - for his second book, ``Under the Eye of the Clock.'' The book had previously won the prestigious Whitbread Biography Award. Mr. Nolan's first book, which went to press when he was only 14, was a startling collection of poetry and prose he had been creating and storing in his mind since the age of 3.
While those youthful writings brought enormous acclaim, in both Britain and Nolan's native Ireland, it's this second volume, an autobiography written in the third person, that's currently rocking the British literary scene. The reader is led through the looking glass into the life of a mute, profoundly handicapped person in a way that has never been achieved before. The style is shrewd, irreverent, moving, joyous, bold.
Nolan is adamant that pity is a false - indeed destructive - prism through which disabled people are generally viewed. In his own case, for example, he's not simply a person who writes rather well, if one takes into account a devastating handicap; this would be the common presumption. He is, as the eminent British critic and Oxford don John Carey has put it, a ``brilliantly gifted young writer,'' whose latest work ``would be possible to praise and analyze ... without reference to his physical condition.''
Ben Pimlott, a London University professor and chairman of the Whitbread biography panel, concurs: ``All one can say is that this is a very extraordinary book. It's a very powerfully written, very truthful book .... I certainly cannot think of any other quite like it .... Sympathy did not play a part in Christopher winning [the awards]. We [the panel] were very conscious of that danger ... and therefore one is actually inclined to lean over the other way. He won because of the merits of his book, period.''
But such is its appeal that Hollywood has already tried to latch onto it. A well-known Los Angeles film producer recently contacted Nolan with the hope of turning his book into a movie. He was wary, however, despite the prospect of huge sums of money. Rejecting the offer, Nolan wrote to the producer: ``Heretofore we have staged crippled man as an object of pity, patted him on the head, allowed sentimentality to flow all around him, and moved onlookers to tears. Now we're in the late eighties and therefore must not allow nuclear-age's children to seem as though they still look through the eyes of stone-age man. I want to highlight the creativity within the brain of a cripple and while not attempting to hide his 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?''
The question was rhetorical. Hollywood being Hollywood, he felt strongly in his heart it could not.
Nolan's style of expression - which has already prompted critics to link his name with writers like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats - can only be described as arresting. Oftentimes, he melds poetic imagery with arcane vocabulary to create verbal pictures of uncanny force; language conventions are stretched to their limits.
Take, for instance, a simple poem published in his first volume, ``I Learn to Bow'' (written at age 11), describing the breakthrough at his typewriter upon discovering that he could, at last, communicate with words: ``Polarized, I was paralyzed/ Plausibility palated/ People realized totally/ Woefully, once I totally/ Opened their eyes.''
Although the form of Nolan's second book is prose, not poetry, the omnipresent poet's muse is nonetheless unmistakable. In one particularly memorable passage, he tells of the day that, ``once, once only,'' Joseph Meehan (his alter ego) cried bitterly upon realizing he was not like other children: ``Looking through his tears he saw [his mother] bent low in order to look into his eyes. `... Listen here Joseph, you can see, you can year, you can think, you can understand everything you hear, you like your food, you like nice clothes, you are loved by me and Dad. We love you just as you are.' Pussing still, sniveling still, he was listening to his mother's voice. She spoke sort of matter-of-factly but he blubbered moaning sounds. His mother said her say and that was that. She got on with her work while he got on with his crying.
``The decision arrived at that day was burnt forever in his mind. He was only three years in age but he was now fanning the only spark he saw, his being alive and more immediate, his being wanted just as he was....
``That day looked out through his eyes for the rest of his life. Comfort came in child-like notions, his clumsy body was his, but molested by mother-love he looked lollying looks at his limbs, and liked Joseph Meehan.''
On my meeting Christopher and his parents, Bernadette and Joe, and older sister (by two years), Yvonne, at their modest Dublin home, it's obvious that any thoughts of tears are long past. Indeed, when asked what he would do if suddenly released from his physical imprisonment, his response, at first glance, is startling: He would get back into his wheelchair by himself.
Upon reading this particular answer (questions necessarily had to be submitted beforehand to allow Christopher sufficient time to type his answers), I look at him and his eyes immediately shoot upward, his signal for the affirmative.
``When he says that he would get back into his wheelchair,'' explains Bernadette, a lively woman in her early 50s who it seems is in near-perfect communion with her son, ``he's telling you that ... we instinctively judge his life by looking at it through our able-bodied eyes and we almost see it as a failure, a tragedy. But to him, it isn't like that at all; it's just life! It's as normal to him, as grand to him, as complete for him, as our able-bodied lives are to us. That's why he wants, for once, to tell the story of crippled man from the crippled man's point of view: You assume the greatest thing you could offer him was to get out of his wheelchair, and he's turned it around and told you, `I'd get right back in again.'''
Christopher indicates with his eyes that his mother speaks his words; he encourages her to elaborate.
She goes on to point out that, due to all the recent publicity, Christopher has received thousands of letters from people who are deeply inspired by his example. ``He has shown them that life is worth living,'' observes Bernadette, ``and it doesn't matter whether you're in a wheelchair or a bed; it's what's going on in your mind and your soul that is important.''
The Nolans are a tight-knit clan. One of the most striking features of ``Under the Eye of the Clock,'' in fact, is Christopher's heartwarming portrayal of his family life. Asked to describe it further, he notes: ``Nobody amounts to anything without getting a head start from their parents.''
``My folk are grand,'' he continues, ``when it comes to helping a fellow in a fix. They stood by me, never pushed me, never asked anything of me, never became too protective of me and, most of all, they accepted me just as though I was able-bodied.
``Individually, they are very different. My father [a psychiatric nurse and part-time farmer] is game for long walks and creates adventure out of a day in Dublin's old streetways. His mind is inquiring, his recall is spontaneous, and his heart is golden.
``My mother never says `no' when I want her support at my typing, but her support is maintained through all of my schemed undertakings. [When he writes, he requires his mother's hands under his chin, combining just the right measure of flexibility and firmness, to allow him to home in on the letter he desires.] ... My books line up my voiceless creativity which spasms have dared to be written, but my mother can read my eyes in a fashion no writer can convey....
``I was wanted dearly,'' he concludes, ``loved dearly, bullied fairly, and treated normally.''
His sister, Yvonne, immediately attests to the latter by recounting some amusing childhood squabbles during their early years. Sibling rivalry existed and, in its own fashion, was fierce. With a blink here or a fixed look there, her brother could more than hold his own. Christopher, sitting nearby, laughs loudly at the recollection.
Initially, it seems utterly remarkable that the Nolans are so adept at understanding Christopher's ``eye language.'' After longer contact with him, though, one realizes it's sheer force of character, coupled with an almost palpable desire to communicate, that's pouring into each ocular expression.
We move into the Nolans' small, homey kitchen for a cup of tea. Christopher's eyes shift to left and are fixed on a chair.
``He's asking you to sit down,'' explains Bernadette.
When Christopher began writing, there was one question on everyone's minds: Where did he acquire such an amazing vocabulary?
His mother admits that she is as baffled as anyone else. She had taught him as a toddler the rudiments of spelling, with pictures and the alphabet lined up in her kitchen. It was an exercise simply to pass the hours for her small son while she was cooking. Little did she suspect it would be discovered later, upon entering a special school, that he was intellectually far ahead of his age.
Even so, until Christopher learned to type, she had no inkling of the sophistication of his thoughts. It can only be assumed that he must have somehow over the years absorbed all he heard on radio, TV, in school (after repeated rejections, one regular high school finally opened its doors to him, which was followed by a year of study at the University of Dublin), and during the family's own lively discussions and debates.
Posed with this question himself, Christopher indicates that he believes his gift for language, in accord with his strong spiritual views, is merely something that has been planted in him.
As for the writing process itself, he explains: ``My mind is just like a spin dryer at full speed. My thoughts fly around my skull, while millions of beautiful words cascade down into my lap. Images gunfire across my consciousness and, while trying to discipline them, I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of mind's expanse.''
If he never writes another word, Christopher Nolan will have made his literary mark: Already it is being said that at least part of his work will eventually find its way into standard anthologies of English literature.
His own goal, however, is to become a ``writer of the '80s'' by setting his literary sights on fiction.
He observes: ``In the past, Dublin writers have always felt compelled to leave Ireland in order to create masterpieces. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. ... My ambition, though, is to seem free by remaining in Dublin, and my great ambition is to write something special, with fresh ink, newly distilled in the heart of Dublin.
``My next book may take years of trammeled writing,'' he adds. ``But, I promise ... it will be worth waiting for.''