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Wilson Harris: Black Marsden

Harris’ previous novels were generally set in the lush, tropical jungles of Guyana but this one moves to the colder climate of Edinburgh, Scotland. However, it is still as strange as his previous works. Clive Goodrich has won a considerable sum on the football pools and has decided to settle in Edinburgh, where he has bought a large house in a fairly secluded district of the town. He has decided to spend some of his money being a patron of the arts. While visiting the ruined Dunfermline Abbey, he encounters the strange Dr. Black Marsden. They start what Goodrich calls a a strange and ambiguous friendship, with Goodrich describing Black Marsden as Clown or Conjurer or Hypnotist Extraordinary, though Marsden describes himself as a doctor of the soul. Goodrich states As if that winter afternoon the strangest invisible Gorgon or Muse, ancient as the face of the globe, had turned her head towards us and fascinated us beyond words. I was in process of projecting from within myself upon him an assortment of instruments, ranging from a knife to a harp. Gorgon, Knife and Harp will later turn out to be characters in Marsden’s strange menagerie. Goodrich invites Marsden and his troupe to stay with him in Edinburgh.

The troupe gradually arrive, starting with Jennifer Gorgon, a beautiful woman that Marsden had found in some appalling dive in London, followed by Knife (another poor gifted devil in need of succour) and then Harp (a bewildered musician rusting in a garret). Mrs. Glenwearie, herself a former actress but now Goodrich’s housekeeper, looks after them. As well as dealing with this group, who, it seems, are to put on a performance of Salomé at the Edinburgh Festival, with Jennifer Gorgon playing a chaste Salomé (a travesty of the original play, in Goodrich’s view) and who are all, inevitably, peculiar, he has strange dreams about them, as happens in Harris’s earlier novels. With the troupe seeming to become a regular feature, staying for weeks, and then months, Goodrich goes walking around Edinburgh, both Walter Scott’s traditional Edinburgh as well as Ian Rankin’s seedier Edinburgh. However, he still seems to welcome his guests as they offer him what he calls a shared community of goods and dreams.

We learn about his past. He tells us that his father, Rigby, disappeared in the jungles of Brazil when he, Goodrich, was five. We later learn that, in fact, his father died when he was one and that it was his step-father who disappeared in Brazil, with various stories about what happened – he decided to run away or he was murdered by his comrades, after killing another man, being two of the stories He himself was born in a town called Namless. Where is this Namless? Despite being taken on a tour of it by Knife, it seems to be remote, not least because the temperature there is forty-five degrees Centigrade, a temperature never even vaguely approached in Scotland. It is at this point that we realise Knife is more than one person, in that he can be white, black or brown. Goodrich and his mother had left when he was six, so he does not recognise the town, not least because it now seems to be deserted. Knife tells him about the town and about the strike, to which the reaction of the authorities was not to send troops but a Director of Cosmic Theatre. But in the end, he goes back to Edinburgh, where it all goes wrong and he is left alone with Mrs. Gleanwearie.

What to make of all of this? Harris gives us a clue in the beginning, when he quotes Kurt Wittig in his book The Scottish Tradition in Literature, who talks of the underlying dualism to be found in many Scottish works. We can see this between Goodrich and Marsden, the different Edinburghs and even in the figure of the Director-General who has two faces, establishment and revolution. We also learn that Marsden is creating a tabula rasa drama, i.e. the different characters are forming Goodrich’s character. Namless, of course, is Guyana, with its heat, its strikes and its big brother director-general. However, overall, it seems too complicated and enigmatic to be considered an enjoyable novel, unless you like your novels confusing and ambiguous. It is long since out of print and I am not entirely surprised.

Publishing history

First published by Faber & Faber 1972