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No Joyce, No Yeats and No Dylan Thomas : UNDER THE EYE OF THE CLOCK The Life Story of Christopher Nolan by Christopher Nolan; preface by John Carey (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 176 pp.)

March 06, 1988|Jackson Cope | Cope is an emeritus professor of English at USC. Author of "Joyce's Cities" (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), he has written frequently on Irish literature

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.)

It is too late and too futile to preach to the converted, but perhaps this sad yet sanguine young Irishman foresaw it all, even as he hoped for better things. There is an ironic cry early in his book of self which might serve as epigraph: "Don't let the media make a monster of me." They have succeeded where nature failed.

Not every college senior could have written this book, but many could have done, and done better (attune the ear to a thesaurus, real or imagined, of cliches and neologisms: "Plodding bravery abandoned him," intones the self-sentimentalizing victim, "Joseph Meehan now joined hushed criminals before the firing squad." He is, in fact, about to be interviewed for admission to prep school. I can offer no similar context for the outburst which begins "Beast and boy were emanating a wondrous Ness-like vraiment. Thirsty notoriety homme-like hiccuped individual hollyberries on all robbed moments of holly-leafed life."

A book full of such self-indulgence, parental indulgence, youthful hope and the rare concomitant promise of growth deserves better than the author has been asked to give. Exploiting Nolan's handicaps to sell bad books indicts St. Martin's Press. A semi-literate youth cannot learn to transcend misfortune, even to become its articulate symbol, if he is told by St. Martin's authors of jacket blurbs that his "writing has been compared to Joyce, Yeats and Dylan Thomas." Held to such standards, Christopher Nolan will, as will we all, be found wanting.

Nolan's slight beginnings have suffered the indignity of phony kudos from an industry that swallows authors much abler to protect themselves than this one. But let us hope he emulates in a stronger, more self-subsistent manner the honored Irish predecessors of isolation, Joyce and Yeats. One need hold no one strictly to their standards. Nolan never approaches meeting them. But a little patience, thoughtfulness, self-extrication from the trashing of mind which has become common to those corporations exploiting print; maybe another young Irishman could become a writer. Not yet.

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