Rare and brave man who elevated our own experience of life


HE WAS a hero; there is no other word. Writer and witness Christopher Nolan watched and listened and felt, he felt powerfully and lived a heroic life sustained by his curiosity and his faith in language.

As if he had been locked in a dark cave, he fought to reach the light and did reach that light. The night in London in 1988 when he won the Whitbread Book of the Year, against strong opposition including Seamus Heaney’s poetry winner, a beautiful collection, The Haw Lantern, people were more than moved, we were empowered.

It was as if we had been privileged to witness a victory of language and perception.

Who would have written such a script? Who would have dared? Two Irish books, one by a poet already destined for greatness, the other, a young boy’s story written with a linguistic deliberation Heaney would appreciate. Which to pick? It wasn’t easy, but Nolan’s triumph was no gesture, it was not symbolic, it was literary, two writers both committed to expressing the essence of sensation were showcasing language as man’s most effective weapon. They were pitted against each other and the other three contenders stood back and waited.

It was exhilarating and also humbling. Christopher Nolan enjoyed the tension.

No one forgets that inspiring, almost playfully abstract memoir Under the Eye of the Clockand that image of life ticking away, measured out, a relentless breathing out and breathing in, the acts we take for granted,

Christopher put weight and meaning to, he elevated our experience. He made us stop and think. Having survived so much, we took it for granted that he could continue to defy all before him.

However magic only lasts so long, that is why it is magical.

Christopher Nolan wrote another great book, The Banyan Tree, published in 1999. By then people had decided he was a writer, the sheer physical effort of writing had been forgotten.

The labour remained though and doggedly, courageously, he wrote a staggeringly beautiful account of an Irish countrywoman’s life from youth to romance and marriage and old age.

It is the most wonderful novel, more gentle than Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bridealthough like it in its quiet dignity. Some of the grief of his passing would be eased by reading The Banyan Tree, in which one of the rarest of writers and bravest of men celebrated the difficult business of being alive.