Ukraine’s contested past

While I am grateful to Kate Brown, whose work on the borderlands I admire, for her review of my book Tales from the Borderlands (September 2), I would like to correct a couple of her assertions. Brown writes that she wishes I had spoken to the current Ukrainian residents of Buchach (formerly Buczacz), and notes that in her own conversations with Ukrainian villagers, they frequently recalled the murder of their former Jewish neighbors by the Germans. But while she refers to my previous bookAnatomy of a Genocide, which focuses directly on the Holocaust in Buchach, she may not have read it closely, since the book includes numerous interviews with local residents, as well as depictions of the utter neglect in that town, as in numerous other towns in West Ukraine, of the mass graves that surround them and the remnants of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. She would have also learned that at issue is not merely the German murder of the Jews, but local collaboration in the killings and profit made from the leftover property of the murdered.

Professor Brown also laments that I left out “the survivors who carried on in Buchach”. But had she read Anatomy of a Genocide, she would have learned that none of the sixty-odd survivors out of the original 8,000 stayed in the town, and that possibly one exception, no Jews lived there after the war, as was the case in most towns of West Ukraine, formerly Eastern Galicia. Finally, Brown wishes I had written another book entirely, exploring instead of my own “contested birthplace”. She seems to feel that any criticism of Ukrainian nationalism today serves the goals of Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine. My own feeling is, however, that Putin’s mendacious propaganda about today’s Ukraine would have been less effective had Ukraine faced up more resolutely to its own contested past. As to my birthplace of Israel, I am happy to report that it will indeed be the topic of my next book.

Omer Bartov
Brown University

Shakespeare’s reading

I have not yet read John Drakakis’s Shakespeare’s Resourcesbut from Bart van Es’s review (July 29) and the portions available online, it seems that for all of his theoretical and material opening up of the category of “source”, Drakakis joins scholars such as Colin Burrow (Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity, 2013) and Jonathan Bate (How the Classics Made Shakespeare2019) in doggedly resisting any notion that Shakespeare had a religious life, or at least religious interests, and drew on religious “resources”.

Any discussion of the old question (even newly theorized) of “Shakespeare’s Books” ought to acknowledge that the majority of books published during his lifetime were religious, overwhelmingly so if one includes Bibles, prayer books, psalters and catechisms. Shakespeare alluded to the Bible in everything he wrote, far more than to any other source, and in terms of character and plot as well as phrases and ideas. Drakakis is interested in oral culture, but does he mention the thousands of sermons that Shakespeare and his contemporaries heard throughout their lives, either in church or at open-air venues such as Paul’s Cross, or the countless biblical ballads, broadsides or puppet plays? Shakespeare could also have seen Calvin’s popular commentaries, Robert Parsons’s Christian DirectoryFoxe’s Acts and Monuments (available in any parish church) and hundreds of other books on religious topics, in which he was obviously – from the evidence of the plays – immensely interested.

Shakespeare’s imagination was synthetic, of course, so that sacred and secular matters, the Bible and the Classics, were constantly interwoven, but to deny one part of the weave is to miss the whole fabric.

Hannibal Hamlin
The Ohio State University, Columbus OH

TS Eliot and William Hazlitt

Seamus Perry, reviewing two books by Simon Armitage (August 19/26), refers to TS Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility” thesis: “Eliot thought things had taken a turn for the worse at some point in the seventeenth century”. According to Tom Paulin, Eliot “stole the concept of dissociation of sensibility from [William] Hazlitt’s account of the 17th century Puritan Bulstrode Whitelocke”, then “hid his tracks very carefully” (Paulin, Introduction to William Hazlitt, The Plain Speaker: The key essays, ed. Duncan Wu, 1998, px; Paulin, The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s radical style, 1998, pp56-8). If that’s true, isn’t it about time that Hazlitt is credited, at least in part, for inspiring Eliot’s “audacious” thesis?

Steven Epperson
Vancouver, BC

Women in the West

For another look at the West written by a woman (Christine Bold’s review of Brave Hearted: The dramatic story of women of the American WestAugust 19/26) see A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman who traveled through north-eastern Colorado in 1873, mostly by herself and mostly on horseback. She had come for the healthy “air”, but glories in the vistas and notes the difficult life of the isolated settlers she comes into contact with.

Margaret M. Cowin
Cleveland Heights OH

The Poisonous Solicitor

JS Barnes’s review of The Poisonous Solicitor by Stephen Bates (July 8) concludes that “an element of doubt” remains as to Herbert Rowse Armstrong’s guilt over the murder of his wife, and that “much remains occluded; it is, perhaps, too distant now for light to penetrate the shadows.”

Perhaps. But the circumstantial evidence of Armstrong’s guilt is damning. Quite apart from the fact that when Mrs Armstrong’s remains were exhumed on January 2, 1922, the Home Office analyst Sir Bernard Spilsbury found three and a quarter grains of arsenic in the organs – the largest amount he had ever found in such a case – Armstrong’s subsequent conduct clearly suggests a habit of removing inconvenient people by means of poison. Notoriously, he invited Oswald Martin, the senior partner of a rival firm of solicitors, to tea on October 26, 1921, when he picked up a scone and placed it on Martin’s plate, saying “excuse fingers” – a remarkable social faux pas. Shortly after returning home, Martin was taken seriously ill with what turned out to be arsenic poisoning. On recovering, he repeatedly declined Armstrong’s offers to come to tea in his office and went in fear for his life.

In September of that year the Martins had received a box of chocolates in the post, addressed in block capitals and with no evidence of the sender. In October they served the chocolates to some guests; Mrs Martin’s sister ate some and fell ill. On analysis, it turned out that some of these chocolates had been punctured at the base and injected with a quantity of arsenic. The puncture holes were exactly fitted by the nozzle of an instrument Armstrong used for injecting arsenic into dandelion and plantain roots. Surely the cumulative evidence places Armstrong’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt?

Sharon Footerman
London NW4

Impossible dream

Arkady Ostrovsky’s review of the production of Patriots by Peter Morgan at the Almeida Theater (August 12) highlights the following statement about Boris Berezovsky: “As a mathematician his ambition was to receive a Nobel prize; as an oligarch his dream was to define Russia’s history”. I find this hard to believe. Surely, as a mathematician, Berezovsky knew that there is no Nobel prize in mathematics?

John Grant
Baltimore MA


To Craig Raine’s catalog of literary feet (Afterthoughts, August 12), I would add this, from early in Olga Tokarczuk’s novelDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The narrator, an ageing woman named Janina, lives an impoverished life in a shabby forest cottage somewhere in Poland. When the novel opens she is reluctantly helping to clean the body of a neighbor found dead in a nearby shack. When she pulls off the man’s filthy foot wrappings, she is “astonished” by their appalling condition:

I have always regarded the feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too highly valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with the body that the whole mystery is located – the fact that we’re built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it. The feet – those are our plugs into the socket.

Inspired by the poems and visions of William Blake, whom she quotes in each chapter, Janina spends her days trying to save the woodland animals from hunters. Her meditation on feet offers an oblique introduction to her own profound sense of rootedness, which in turn powers her relentless but fruitless efforts to protect nature from human depredation.

Peter Conn
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia PA


In her entertaining account of Lucy Lethbridge’s Tourists (August 19/26), Ysenda Maxtone Graham discusses those in the nineteenth century who went abroad and “were all too often gravely disappointed when they saw them [things in other countries] as they were.” This contrasts with those literary figures, albeit a much smaller group – Robert Browning, John Addington Symonds, John Ruskin and Walter Pater – “who could transfer much of their affection to the Mediterranean without experiencing a correlative contempt for home” (Paul Fussell, Abroad1980).

Fussell makes an interesting further point about twentieth-century writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Norman Douglas, Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves, and later Lawrence Durrell, Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden, that “departure is attended by the conviction that England is uninhabitable because it is not like abroad.”

Perhaps some of us just wish to see our prejudices confirmed whether at home or abroad?

Alastair Conan

Literary graffiti

I enjoyed CR’s examples of marginalia and graffiti (NB, August 19/26). They brought to mind my favorite graffito, spotted in the men’s room of a tavern in San Francisco’s Richmond District some forty years ago and never forgotten: “I thought I was William Carlos Williams, but I was only Henry James.” I’ve been thinking about it intermittently ever since.

Edward Tenny
Portland OR

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