Christopher Nolan dies at 43; Irish poet and novelist
The writer refused to allow cerebral palsy to interfere with his career.
February 25, 2009
Christopher Nolan, an Irish poet and novelist who refused to let cerebral palsy get in the way of his writing, has died. He was 43.
Nolan choked on a piece of food Friday at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, according to a statement from his family in the Irish media. The hospital confirmed his death Saturday.
Christopher Nolan was a gifted writer who attained deserved success and acclaim throughout the world for his work," Irish President Mary McAleese said in a statement, adding that his achievements were "all the more remarkable given his daily battle with cerebral palsy."
Nolan's brain was starved of oxygen at birth, leaving him unable to speak or control his arms or legs. He might have remained isolated from the outside world were it not for a drug, Lioresal, which restored some of his muscle function. His parents nurtured their partly paralyzed son's literary talent.
Using a "unicorn stick" strapped to his forehead to type on a keyboard, Nolan laboriously wrote messages and, eventually, poems and books as well.
Bernadette Nolan, Christopher's mother, said her son was 11 when his writing turned lyrical.
"He wrote of a family visit to a cave that was illuminated by electric lights: He said it was 'a lovely, fairy-like effect to the work of nature,' " she told the Associated Press in a 1987 interview. "It was just that turn of phrase," she said. "I thought, that's unusual for a kid of 11."
The next day Nolan wrote a poem packed with metaphors and peppered with alliteration, which his mother said showed a mind "just like a spin dryer at full speed."
His father Joseph, a part-time farmer and psychiatric nurse, read his son poetry and passages from James Joyce's "Ulysses." Christy, as his family called him, took to writing early: He published "Dam-Burst of Dreams," a collection of poetry, at 15. Even then, critics compared it to Joyce.
His autobiography, "Under the Eye of the Clock: The Life Story of Christopher Nolan," won the prestigious Whitbread Award in 1988. The third-person account describes Nolan's longing for an education and the liberation of finally being able to type out his feelings. The book was a frank but sometimes hilarious account of his disability: He described his arm flying out to grab a woman's skirt and how his mouth sometimes remained stubbornly shut when he wanted to take communion.
As novelist Margaret Drabble noted, the book was "not merely another tale of brave strife against odds," adding that Nolan was "a writer, a real writer who uses words with an idiosyncratic new-minded freshness."
He later wrote a novel, "The Banyan Tree," and an adaptation of his writings called "Torchlight and Laser Beams" was produced in Dublin in 1988.
Nolan disliked sentimental stories about his disability. Although "Under the Eye of the Clock" drew offers to have his book made into a movie, Nolan refused on the grounds that the production would be a sympathy piece, according to the Irish Independent.
"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," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Nolan was born Sept. 6, 1965, in Mullingar, County Westmeath, in north central Ireland. He lived with his family on a farm until age 6, when they moved to Dublin. Once he was able to communicate with the help of medication and a computer, he enrolled in a secondary school. He also attended Trinity College in Dublin.
He is survived by his parents and a sister. [email protected]