A Horse at Night: On Writing by Amina Cain review – reading as a sensual act | Literary criticism

Books about reading other books are a genre where the act of reading is always, unfailingly, romanticised. Amina Cain’s first foray into nonfiction, A Horse at Night, is no different. Two years ago, she wrote a remarkable novel, Indelicacy, about a cleaner in an art museum wanting to produce art herself. Now she has written a book-length essay where she reads fiction, (and watches cinema, and stares at paintings) not for the value of the stories they tell, but for the landscapes they portray. The essay is a chain of images moving fast, compiled to create a heightened, artful experience for the reader. “It’s not always language I’m drawn to first,” she writes. “I often begin with setting. Before plot, before dialogue, before anything else.” The images shift from settings by the ocean, to night-time, to freezing winters, to the natural world. The narrators and the backstories of these novels, paintings and films are made to disappear. What remains is the reader alone with these visions. The word in the book that describes best what Cain is trying to evoke in the reader is “picture-feeling”. It is taken from a Renee Gladman book of the same name, but Cain cannot remember what it was about.

The opening scene of Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park in which it rains in a London suburb for five pages… The sea in southern Spain in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk in which the narrator, Sofia, is stung by jellyfish… The intimate darkness of Borges’s short story A Dialogue About a Dialogue, in which two characters sit chatting in a room, forgetting to switch on the lamp… Cain asks us not to merely read fiction, but to watch it unfurl on the page.

By publicly thinking through a chain-link of scenes written by the likes of Cusk, as well as Marguerite Duras, Elena Ferrante and Jean Genet, Cain explores the many lives she has led privately as a reader. Reading, for her, is a sensual act. And we read along with her as she reads in solitude or to relax; reads to project or reads yearning for a second place to inhabit. She has lost friends over reading Ferrante; she is worried that the internet is turning novelists into corporations. The endgame here is to create an otherworldly, romantic feeling about reading: a positive experience that is devoid of too many plot details, personality, or conflict. But that ultimately makes A Horse at Night light reading, so light that it puts you to sleep. Turns out that the very elements in fiction that Cain may be avoiding – detail, personality, conflict – are the things that make such iconic scenes from novels (and films) last in our minds for ever.

The book is, at best, a journal where Cain is trying to figure out how to write her next novel. Her reading is proof that great art leaves a person irrevocably changed; in every chapter she is a different version of herself. “A person should be like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball,” she writes, “absorbing everything around them.”

Often sentences begin with the words “I want to”. “I want to write like Anne Carson.” “I want to write about loneliness.” “I want to be authentic.” “Pleasure, freedom, torment, emptiness: it is what I want my writing to express.” For every book she reads, she is moved to write one of her own in response. “I begin to think that I must write a novel about suffering because so many are suffering.” On the next page, she says: “I’ll write about the things that make me feel ashamed in my life like getting older.” The only thing that remains constant throughout the book is an earnest craving for deeper fiction. “To go further,” as she says. Cain is a writer still making up her mind.