Drowned Phoenician Sailor, The. A novel written by Mark Wittenborn (1946-), and published by Faber and Faber in 1995. The Drowned Phoenician Sailor stands as unique among Wittenborn’s writing as his only published work of “literary” fiction. Known primarily for Science Fiction writing, Wittenborn spent twelve years on this slim volume (the first edition hardcover clocks in at only 204 pages). In interviews, Wittenborn has said that the idea for the book came to him “all in a flash” as he was reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on a bus ride from Midland, Texas to Oklahoma City. “It was all there right in front of me. All I had to do was write it down,” he said. But Wittenborn soon found that he could only work on the book when it was raining. “And, you know, north Texas it’s sunny three hundred-fifty days of the year. Sometimes you’d get the left over rags of a hurricane coming up through Texas from the gulf, and that would be five straight days of me working on it. But it could be months, years sometimes that I wouldn’t do anything with it. I mean, even when it would rain there were times I was busy doing something else. Writing something else or I’d be at a conference or I’d have to work, you know so I could eat. And sometimes even in the rain I didn’t feel like working on it.”
The Drowned Phoenician Sailor tells the story of Harry Moynahan, a young American expat in London, in a kind of self-imposed emotional exile. Harry has developed a hard shell around a damaged heart and damaged psyche. With drugs and alcohol he tries to numb himself against the memory of a family tragedy that is never fully revealed by the narrative. The novel ends quietly, but rapturously despite (or perhaps because of) that quietness. An expressionistic book, The Drowned Phoenician Sailor employs a number of Nabakovian textual games in its execution, which were lauded and derided with equal measure by reviewers when it was first published. But whether positive or negative, most reviews tended to express a certain surprise at the experimental nature of the book. Though that surprise seems somewhat unwarranted, especially when one takes into consideration Wittenborn’s path-breaking work of science fiction The Ambulance Pays Its Own Rent (see entry), itself an incredibly experimental book.
If The Drowned Phoenician Sailor is a book that can only be written in the rain, it’s also a book that can only be read in the rain. Wittenborn’s novel is draped in a gray melancholy, and its language seems to creep, to grow like shoots down into the slow wetness of time. One reviewer compared certain of the book’s passages to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. “Though without Burton’s tongue in Burton’s cheek. When I finished,” the reviewer wrote, “in the late afternoon, I curled up in my bed and stayed there until late the next morning.” Indeed, Wittenborn’s book has been blamed for months, perhaps years worth of absenteeism on the part of readers who, upon finishing, were unable to return to the normal rhythm of their lives for some time, and only then after the greatest of efforts.
The Drowned Phoenician Sailor was the book that Bertrand Albee was holding when he witnessed Donal Sonderstrom beat a subordinate nearly to death after Sonderstrom had been publicly humiliated by Whitey Bolger late one night in a St. Paul supper club.