Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury

A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky
Biography by Galya Diment

Koteliansky - Kot to his friends - has always fascinated me.  He hovered around on the fringes of Bloomsbury - an unlikely figure - and was influential in the lives of Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence.  He was also a passionate advocate of Russian literature and translated a great deal of it into English, introducing some little known authors to a western audience for the first time.

Most people were in awe of his moral integrity and passionately held principles.  'Kot was not a comfortable man,' wrote Leonard Woolf in his obituary.  Kot had a crushing handshake and such an air of 'rightness' that some people maintained it wasn't possible to tell a lie in his presence.  Lawrence nicknamed him 'Jehovah' and Katherine Mansfield said that he reminded her of an Old Testament Prophet.

Until I read Galya Diment's biography, I hadn't understood Kot's complex personality or his background and I was completely unaware of the struggle he had to establish himself in London and support himself as a refugee with no skills other than literacy.  I was also unaware of the extent of anti-semitic feeling and prejudice in England at that time.  Virginia Woolf used to refer to her husband Leonard as The Jew in public, and even in his presence - Leonard did not interpret it as a playful nickname - he was grimly aware of how he was regarded.  Virginia had told him in a letter that it was 'his Jewishness' that she disliked and which had given her second thoughts when she considered marrying him.  In her 1915 diary she wrote; 'How I hated marrying a Jew!'

There were a number of other Jews hovering around the fringes of Bloomsbury at that time - the painter Mark Gertler was one of them and he too was a close friend of Kot, regarding him as something of a father-figure.

Samuel Ivanovitch Koteliansky was born in 1880, a year before the major Pograms against the Jews began in Russia.  He was born in the Pale of Settlement, in Ukraine, where Jews had been condemned to live by Catherine the Great (hence the saying 'beyond the pale').  Kot's father was a merchant and the family owned a mill, but their fortunes were declining with those of their race.  Kot studied at Odessa and Kiev universities and was politically active as a student, earning him the nickname of 'the anarchist' in London.  Anti Jewish feeling was growing in Russia and there were massacres and surges of hatred that led to Jews being accused of murdering Russian children in order to drink their blood.  Kot fled Russia in 1911 and came to Britain where he worked at the Russian Law Bureau, helping similar refugees.  For several years he lived in one room 'above the shop'.
DH Lawrence
 Kot had violent attachments and detachments where people were concerned. He idolised DH Lawrence, believing him to be a genius.  It was on a walking holiday in the Lake District that Kot sang the Hebrew psalm that gave DHL the idea of calling his utopian writers' community 'Rananim'.  Later Lawrence portrayed Kot as 'Kangaroo' - the character in the novel of the same name.  Lawrence had a habit of casting his friends as actors in his fiction.  The biography points out that the love between Kangeroo and Lawrence's alter-ego in the novel, Somers, may well have put into words the love, un-named and unacknowledged, that existed between Lawrence and Kot.

It seems probable that, although Kot had loving feelings and attachments for women, they were not of a sexual nature and that he was actually attracted to men.  As a puritan, a Jew with a Hasidic background, these homosexual leanings could not be acknowledged.  Certainly sexual repression and loneliness were big factors in Kot's bouts of severe depression and mental breakdown.

To Katherine Mansfield he was a constant, loving friend who forgave her all kinds of misdemeanors.  After the death of Katherine Mansfield's brother in France in 1915, Katherine couldn't bear to live in her beautiful house at 5 Acacia Road.  It was sub-let to Kot and a Russian friend and Kot was to live there for the rest of his life, opening the garden occasionally to fans of Mansfield who wanted to see the pear tree which had featured in her story 'Bliss'.  

Mansfield and Kot in the garden, by Beatrice Campbell
 Kot collaborated with Katherine on Russian translations - their last meeting only a few months before she died.  When her husband John Middleton Murry published Katherine's private journals and letters to himself, Kot was disgusted and regarded it as a complete betrayal of Katherine.  He had always disliked Murry and now he hated him with the kind of energy only Kot could put into the emotion.

Kot scraped a precarious living from journalism and translating, rarely having enough money for more than a bare existence.  He was helped by generous friends - Lawrence supplying a 5,000 word introduction to one of his translations knowing that his article would sell the book;  Julian and Juliette Huxley and May Sarton all tried to help his work; and HG Wells' daughter Margery looked after him as his mental and physical health declined. 

In 1936 he had a complete nervous breakdown and in the years that followed was subjected to several episodes of electric shock treatment.  His friend Mark Gertler committed suicide in 1939, Virginia Woolf in 1941, and the horrors of the second world war weighed heavily on Kot's emotional health.  Many of his friends and relatives died in his home town in the Ukraine - victims of ethnic cleansing.  In 1947 Kot also tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat with a razor.  He was unsuccessful, but his physical health never recovered from it and he was an invalid for the rest of his life.  He died from heart disease in January 1955.

This is a very well researched biography, crammed full of historical and personal detail.  It brought Kot alive for me, and gave me much more of an insight into the difficult, fragile existence of Europe's political refugees.  Our attitude to asylum seekers hasn't changed a jot.  They are tolerated, but not really accepted into our communities with a whole heart.  They live on the fringes of our society and can never feel completely secure.  Many regard them as a kind of parasite, without realising how much they have contributed - culturally and in many other ways.

A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury:  The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky
by Galya Diment

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller
by Kathleen Jones

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