Christopher Nolan is a seriously disabled young Irishman (21 at the publication of this book) who was born mute and paralyzed owing to near-asphyxiation at birth. The clock of the title is that on the spire topping the landscape of the preparatory school where Nolan succeeded in breaking his own and others' psychological and communicative barriers; succeeded in becoming an accepted member loyal to and receiving loyalties from a boys' school clique; succeeded in gaining admission to Trinity College, Dublin. In the course of this growth, Nolan became adept at typing with a mechanism attached to his forehead, and produced a little collection of mediocre poems at 15, an achievement that encouraged his progression to the present autobiography.
Well, it is not exactly an autobiography. Rather, it is the third-person history of one Joseph Meehan, a mute and paralyzed protagonist whose adventures may be poetically embroidered beyond the limits of Nolan's life history by excerpts from some understandable dreams of the future. This is what raises rancor with the publishers' exploitation of natural curiosity in yet another nonce-book about the unnatural circumstances in which a few of us live more desperately than the rest.
Nolan's proper instinct wanted to fictionalize experience, but St. Martin's Press saw fit to subtitle his fiction as "the life story of Christopher Nolan." Nolan's motive was to test himself and his literary powers in the time-honored genre of the Bildungsroman , those histories of budding maturation which have focused young fictionalists from Goethe to Joyce and well beyond these landmarks. The publishers' motive was to emphasize the sentimentality of Nolan's spectacular partial transcendence of immense difficulties. They succeeded beyond any measure of reasonableness or decency: Nolan's book was put into literary competition with the late Richard Ellmann's biography of another Irishman, Oscar Wilde, a work as permanent as any scholarly accomplishment is likely to become and Ellmann's last gracious contribution in a lifetime of meticulous preservation which made him the major historian of Irish literature (Ellman's "Ocsar Wilde" was reviewed Feb. 14 in The Times). The competition was for the British Whitbread biography prize, which Nolan has now won, but which has been permanently debased by the ballyhoo accompanying his book's candidacy. (He has also won a second and more lucrative prize, Whitbread's book-of-the-year award.)