Jane Freilicher, Flowers and Pine Trees, 1983. Oil on linen, 33 x 41 inches. Collection of Jim Tarica.

 

 Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Salman Rushdie, Seamus Heaney, and Schubert, Strauss, and Schack.

FictionLászló Krasznahorkai and Salman Rushdie, with Valeria Luiselli, at the 92nd Street Y (December 14):Two weeks from today offers a rare chance to hear two Man Booker Prize-winning authors on the same night. On December 14, the 92nd Street Y brings together Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, and who has been shortlisted three other times, and László Krasznahorkai, the Hungarian writer best known for his bleak, apocalyptic fiction, who received the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. Rushdie will read from his latest novel, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, while Krasznahorkai will read from a new collection of nonfiction titled Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens: Reportage. After the readings the authors will be led in discussion by Valeria Luiselli, whose latest novel is The Story of My Teeth. Fans and followers of contemporary literature should be sure to purchase their tickets now, as the event is likely to sell out. —BR

Nonfiction: The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, by Darío Fernández-Morera (Intercollegiate Studies Institute): “Islam,” said Barack Obama in his notorious speech at Cairo in 2009, "has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia.” In his forthcoming book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, Darío Fernández-Morera, who teaches at Northwestern University, shows in meticulous detail just how preposterous the story Barack Obama repeated is. In fact, in Andalusia, as in every place where the phrase “under Islamic rule” pertains, intolerance, segregation, formal inequality, and brutality were the order of the day. Jews and Christians, Fernández-Morera shows, were second-class citizens in Spain, subject to the arbitrary and tyrannical whim of their Muslim conquerors for whom there was no disitinction between religious and civil law: sharia, Islam law, ruled all aspects of daily life. Fernández-Morera also shows that “the oft-repeated assertion” that Islam preserved and transmitted forgotten classical knowledge from Aristotle and other Greek thinkers “is baseless.” “Ancient Greek texts and Greek culture,” he points out, “were never ‘lost’ to be somehow ‘recovered.’” You cannot read far into the academic literature on Muslim-controlled Spain without encountering the assertion that it represented “a golden age” of “enlightened rule” under the Umayyad dynasty in the latter half of the eighth century. Fernández-Morera shows that, on the contrary, “of all the dynasties of Islamic Spain," the Umayyads were the cruelest and most energetic in their persecution of non-Muslims. Inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions were rife, as were expropriations and the destruction of churches and synagogues. In a passage that might have been drawn from today’s news reports about the activities of ISIS, one scholar that Fernández-Morera quotes notes that the Muslim rulers of Andalusia “carried out indiscriminate beheading of prisoners of war.” Furthermore, in another passage that might be drawn from today’s headlines, we read that the Umayyad rulers “imposed brutal punishments on the dhimmis [i.e., the non-Muslims] who dared to openly proclaim their religious beliefs.” It was ever thus. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a useful corrective to the emetic tripe about Islam being a “religion of peace” and “jihad” being essentially an effort of self-perfection that one hears endlessly repeated by people who should know better. —RK

Poetry: Field Work, by Seamus Heaney (FSG Classics): From his country cottage in County Wicklow, Seamus Heaney produced the poems found in Field Work, which steer away from Irish politics into elegant ruminations on time and place as they occur to him through natural landscape. As Heaney undulates between observations of external setting into contemplations of internal reflection, he demonstrates the interconnectedness between person and place, past and present. In poems like "Oyster," Heaney establishes a current sense of the present, draws us back into the past by referencing the Roman Empire, then eventually resolves by addressing time's inevitable passing. Though the back and forth may seem superfluous, each leap is effortless, mimicking Heaney's attachment to his physical setting while crossing time and space with such precision that the shifts occur seamlessly, nearly undetected. Though many poets spend decades trying to master this fluidity, Heaney's most powerful moments occur in lines like, "the sunset blaze/ of straw on blackened stubble/ a thatch-deep, freshening/ barbarous crimson burn/ I rode down England/ as they fired the crop," in which natural observations lead him into deeper thought. When Heaney submits to these reflections, the results are connections joined together through dazzling visual imagery and powerful poems that demonstrate the inseparability of person and place, the metaphorical and the real. By linking the physical world with ourselves, Heaney allows sunset's glow, a metaphor for time's decay, to evoke a present sense of heat, a cognizance of fire, that leaves us standing in "hot soot/ a breaking sheaf of light.” —ID

Art: "Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen," (Through January 18, 2016): It might be said that Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson were something of artistic parallels. The two Janes were born just months apart in 1924. They rocketed through the firmament of Abstract Expressionism to arrive at a new form of representation. They were inspired by the New York School of poets and the landscapes of the East End of Long Island. And they both recently passed away, months apart, at age ninety. Their friendship and their distinctive visions are now on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York in "Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen," with Freilicher's grounded elegies now paired with Wilson's skyward embrace. —JP

Music:Diana Damrau and Craig Rutenberg, at Carnegie Hall (December 6): Though vocal recitals seem to be in decline in America's musical life, Carnegie Hall continues to hold the torch high, presenting robust programs with talented singers, whether world-famous or just starting their careers. This Sunday's program in the main auditorium will feature Diana Damrau, one of the most important artists onstage today, who has excelled in repertoire from Mozart to Massenet. Her Sunday program with Craig Rutenberg will feature a trove of beloved art songs: "Ständchen" (both the Schubert/Rellstab and the Strauss/Schack), Strauss's "Wiegenlied," Poulenc's Fiançailles, and many more. The one that catches my eye most of all is Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade," the lied that put art song on the map as a form to be taken seriously alongside the sonata, the quartet, and other small-ensemble configurations. With its wailing melody and ghostly arabesque accompaniment, "Gretchen" is the sort of musical work that haunts the soul for days after a hearing. The thought of Damrau bringing her superior interpretive powers to this work is thrilling. —ECS

From the archive: Heaney's ghosts, by William Logan: A review of Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.

From our latest issue: The intolerable dream, by Gary Saul Morson: On the four-hundredth anniversary of Don Quixote.

 

Introduce yourself to The New Criterion for the lowest price ever—and a receive an extra issue as thanks.