Books and Life at Once

Amina Cain, A Horse at Night: On Writing

Daunt Books, 224pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781914198373

reviewed by Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

What I remember is the camomile, the ‘plash’ of the water, the ‘shameless beauty’ of the sycamore trees. These are some of the visual fragments from the opening pages of Beloved, Toni Morrison’s commemorative love song to the ‘sixty million and more’ Africans and African Americans who suffered, endured and fought the horrors of slavery. They are not my memories nor are they exactly Morrison’s, but those of her main character, the other beloved of the text, Sethe, whose mind revives and relives the trauma of her former life on the ironically named Sweet Home farm. But I, like so many readers, remember these images as if they were mine; I remember the sublime ‘rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling out’ of the past in Sethe’s present, remember how memory unwinds to its own accord, its own unknown logic; remember how history is held in one fist-like image only to unclench and reveal another. The water, the trees, the stinging itch of the camomile, the ghosts of the past unsaid.

Perhaps it’s because I have taught this text many times. Perhaps it’s because the whole novel is about acts of memory – is in itself a memorialisation, an eternal remembrance of those most ignored – that I carry these fragments, and continue to remember the beauty and horror Sethe sees, Toni writes and we imagine, in my own waking hours. I’m not saying ‘rememory’ – Morrison’s concept about the disjointed but no less true experience of remembering for African Americans like Sethe – is mine. Rather, this is a book whose images deliberately haunt our imaginations; this is a novel that shows the underside of a quivering leaf (blood), the refracted reflection in the pail of water (a broken brutalised man), the potentiality of the scraps and orts of a household (a wedding dress). This is a novel whose images live on, live through and ‘roll’ out in the reader’s imagination. With these fragments in mind, Morrison asks us to consider how the very fabric of this our beautifully violent world is made.

Remembering someone else’s remembering reminds us of the power of writing – as well as the power of memory. Writer Amina Cain knows this; with Morrison, she shares this sense of knowing about the palimpsestic magic of words and the images they create and lodge in the minds and bodies of readers. Cain knows that the shoring up of recollected impressions – factual or fictional – on the page, gifts readers these self-same recollections – the camomile, the trees, the water – with which to understand and see, animate and enrich, our own inner lives. In Cain’s new work, A Horse at Night: On Writing, images, therefore, flourish in abundance, punctuating sentences that describe other images from other books by other writers. When visiting El Matador Beach in Malibu for example, Cain ‘projects’ and reminisces about ‘some other beach in some other place’. Either side of this reflection about the art, the need, the process of projection, she muses about Ferrante’s Leda from The Lost Daughter, another figure who projects onto the surrounding Mediterranean Sea her own fractured visions; or Duras’ Lol Stein, who ‘projects’ onto her neighbourhood a painful moment from the past. Between Duras and Ferrante, Cain’s own projecting captures this proliferation of impressions, and enacts this process of seeing and parsing and inhabiting life through former images – or really, the ghostly memory of them. In the water, I hear the ‘plash’. In the swaying trees, the sorrow undone. In the green fields, the sting that turns into a run. I see in the lived moment unlived images alive and living well.

The generosity of Cain’s slim but ever expansive and evocative work is that she lays these projections bare. And not only does she lay them bare but she describes them in her own beautifully luminescent and sculpturally spare prose. We go to the beach with her, learning in this ‘chapter’ about the projections of figures in the work of Elena Ferrante, Marguerite Duras, Deborah Levy and Joanna Walsh; we go to the shop with her, where she is reminded of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Within these reminiscences – which are a special kind of reminiscence because they are the writer’s thoughts before she transposes them into words, thus layering writing onto the written again – she paints us sublime images that, like the ‘space’ of ‘fiction’, are figures of ‘plainness and of excess’ at once. We see the ‘persimmon and butter’ for which one could hypothetically go out ‘into the heat or rain’; we see her imagining of ‘the flowers that look like bright yellow balls’, flowers from Lolly Willowes that appear to her when she is out, though they could be before me now, as I type this. In these self-reflexive, aesthetic moments, where the literary is embedded with literature and the factual becomes transfixed with the fictional mood and mode, Cain demonstrates the rich and vibrant potentiality of art. She demonstrates how it fills, comforts, illuminates and imbues our waking hours, deepening, lengthening them out, transforming time – transforming our own making and inhabiting of it.

That is not to say that those facets of (creative) writing – place, narrative, character etc. – don’t matter to Cain, because they do. But that this, well and truly, is not how one experiences a book or carries it within them – at least, this is not the only way. And this is what Cain’s soothingly sublime writing about writing gestures towards; that the intertwined activities and arts of reading and writing are not born through these academic rituals of analysis or convention but through our personal response – it is through the Barthean ‘punctum’ not so much the ‘studium’ that a book comes alive for us. It is through experiencing ‘character like a landscape’ – as well as the landscapes that characters experience – which Cain does with a seamless artistry all of her own in the novel Indelicacy. It is through the evocation, the electrical excitement and propulsive promise one feels at the sound of a title. It is through hot and cold, sun and snow, light and dark, the fictional sequences where intimate night lays thick, operatically staging scenes and divulging smouldering secrets akin to those found in Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Night Watch. It is through the meetings and moments that mirror our own – a character taking a bath, going for a walk, a drive, a swim, a shortcut across a camomile-strewn field. It is through the varying selves – gathered fragments of images and impressions surely? – encountered on the page, encountered off the page, commingling and living within us – it is through all this that we read, that we write internally, books and life at once.

This proximity between writing and visual art especially – that frisson where words become images and images provoke, pronounce, words – is repeatedly touched on in A Horse at Night. For Cain – an art writer also and one whose life is not necessarily imitated by her own heroine, Vittoria, but the contours of which touch her heroines when she writes about art – it is the ‘suspension in one moment, one figure’ found in genres like ‘portraiture in painting and drawing and photography’ that she appreciates and, through description, believes we ‘can get close to’. Images, ‘details’, incisive insights – not so much plot – drive this and her writing more generally – drive us in the intense reading and remembering of it. Thus Cain’s writing is its own tapestry of images – her own and others – but also actual paintings, engravings, stills and frames belonging to Dürer, Pollaiolo, Rembrandt, Carax and Lynch. It is this, threading, suspending, thinking, remembering all into and through the potency of the image, in her own writing and her writing of others, that she shares with Morrison. When Morrison discusses how she comes to writing fiction, particularly the novels that deal directly with slavery, she asserts ‘what makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image…in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of truth’. This ‘kind of truth’ is shared by both Morrison, in her picture-making and the ‘feelings’ that attend it, and Cain, in her quiet but impressive impressions of books and how they have worked on her inner, writing life. The camomile, the water, the trees in Sethe’s mind all come rushing in, rolling out in my mind, my thoughts, my memories of that book, this book, those future works that capture the fragmented memories of memory from our quilted past.

And why Beloved, I hear you ask? Why this book, layered over and into another book, that is about so many other books and their effect on another American author? Aside from the prose of both authors striking a match in the dark of my mind, Cain creates a memorable portrait – a vignette in every etymological sense of that word – of Beloved as a novel of receding light, of encroaching night and the growing ghost of it all, slowly taking over, closing in on Sethe and Denver and Paul D (and eventually casting the latter out), flooding 124 with its own ‘shining’, making us, the readers, sit in the dark, watching the action unfold in this stage of a house that is America. Cain creates this image, this memory of a gas-lit theatre, where Morrison’s figures act out their loves, pains and tragic passions. She subtly paints this scene, footlights throwing shadow away from all who stand on the wooden boards of Morrison’s mind, Cain’s mind, my mind, our memories, through such images, glowing on the page.

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer, PhD student and the founding editor-in-chief of Lucy Writers. She has writing published in The London Magazine, The Arts Desk, The White Review and forthcoming work in Burlington Contemporary, Asymptote Journal and Plinth UK.