April 25, 2004

In the Shadow of the Patriarch
Francisco Goldman

The Competition -- One joy in watching the wonderful documentary, "A Great Day in Harlem," is hearing so many jazz musicians say such nice things about one another. Our public spaces have become so filled with shrill criticism and lurid gossip that it is refreshing (even startling) to hear men and women swap favorable, polite compliments. I'm not sure why the public realm of the writing life has so often been peppered with pettiness and competition. It's either because the stakes are so small -- or so big. Hard tellin', as my friends in Missouri say. This profile of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (appearing in The New York Times magazine, November 2, 2003) left me pondering the competitive nature of writers, especially a passage in which Francisco Goldman recollects a long-ago lecture by another great writer, Jorge Luis Borges: "I was in my first year at the University of Michigan when Jorge Luis Borges came to speak. I sat on the floor of a packed auditorium and remember the moment during the questions and answers when a graduate student rose to voice his vehement request for Borges to unequivocally denounce the realist novel. Borges, with his soft, blind stare, resembled an elegant saint levitating in an English suit as he answered, 'Young man, whether we are talking about Henry James or Robbe-Grillet, Conrad or Beckett, all of literature is part of the same dream and one of the few pleasures allowed to us on earth.'" Goldman does not say, but I hope the remark was welcomed with thunderous applause.