Like any city with a reputation as a capital of the arts, Paris has been enshrined in literary memory as both the pinnacle of creative ambition, and the graveyard of young hope. Reading the dyspeptic Flaubert on the condition of artistic aspiration, for example, can make it seem like Paris is where nineteenth-century dreams came to be ossified in the catacombs of urban distraction. Remember Pellerin in Sentimental Education: “Tortured by a longing for fame, sating his days in argument, believing in countless ridiculous ideas, in systems, in critics, in the importance of the codification or the reform of art, he had reached the age of fifty without producing anything but sketches. His robust pride prevented him from feeling any discouragement, but he was always irritable, and in that state of excitement, at once natural and artificial, which is characteristic of actors.”
I quote this both because it is hilarious, and in direct counterpoint to the sense of creative purpose with which ten unpublished novelists and poets read from and talked about their works in progress on Friday morning. The writers presented their work at Reid Hall, an eighteenth-century porcelain factory that became a boys’ school, a girls’ school, and a military hospital during World War I, before assuming its contemporary avatar as the site of the Paris chapter of Columbia University’s Global Centers.
Five of these writers live and work in India, and were selected for the programme through a competition conducted by The Caravan. Five others are students of Columbia University’s MFA writing programme. (Full disclosure: the Columbia university professor Susan Bernofsky and I, who moderated the session, were both part of the jury that selected the five writers based in India.) At the session, called ‘A Writer's Path,’ they were in conversation with four Indian writers participating in the festival—Jeet Thayil, Vikram Chandra, Sudeep Sen and Geetanjali Shree—both about writing and the business of being a writer.