- A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky by Galya Diment
Who in Lawrence studies does not know of S. S. Koteliansky? As Diment says, "Lawrence wrote more letters to him than to anyone else outside of his family" (3). But because Lawrence's letters to Koteliansky survived, but few of Koteliansky's to Lawrence, we know very little about him—until now, that is. Diment has written a well-researched, perspicuous biography of a man whose influence on the high modernists was almost as great as his name is long. In fact, this study could be twice the size and not exhaust the important connections that we only glimpse within the scope of this work.
It is clear that Diment's purpose is to establish a legacy for a little-known (Jewish) figure, and she has succeeded admirably. Referred to most often by his initials or by the abbreviation "Kot," he has been merely a receptacle, the person at whom D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, John Middleton Murry, Lady Ottoline Morrell, H. G. Wells, Dorothy Richardson, May Sarton, and many others threw their off-hand words, the person to whom they projected their personalities, in letters. The man himself has been overlooked—an oversight Diment corrects through compelling research and clear narrative.
What emerges is the man who, on a walking tour of the Lake District, climbed into bed with Lawrence. The occasion was their first meeting, but the move must have struck just the right chord. Lawrence remembered the trip vividly many years later and remarked to Kot compassionately, "How you suffered having to sleep in the same bed," in spite of (or perhaps because of) realizing early on that Kot's world "is all of one hemisphere" (52-53). The two were five years apart in age; Kot was single, and Lawrence had just wed Frieda. The relationship—nay, intimacy—would be strong and influential for the rest of Lawrence's life.
Picture this: a man with "an impressive hooked Semitic nose, . .. [and] coarse black curly hair" (55), speaking with a thick accent, intimate friends with the wordsmith who was otherwise virulently anti-Semitic (47) and who was married to a woman who was undoubtedly so, all at a time when being Jewish was a great burden and soon to become a real danger. As Diment says, anti-Semitism was "less 'ferocious' than in the rest of Europe, [but] . . . still plenty infuriating" (42), and Kot knew only too well the history of pogroms against his people. The Bloomsbury circle included other Jews: Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia and others referred to disparagingly as "the Jew," even though he was native-born and had no foreign accent (43), and Mark Gertler, who like Kot had a heavy accent, Yiddish-speaking parents, and a Hebrew education. All of these men submitted to unthinkable anti-Semitic rudeness and were self-deprecating. Diment's depiction of "Goyish" London Jews is revealing.
Koteliansky's attraction for the modernists was both subtle and deep. His innate intelligence, coupled with his background and upbringing, enabled him to be thought-provoking, bluntly outspoken, interestingly eclectic, and undoubtedly companionable. He was a connoisseur of [End Page 787] the arts without being a competitor. He was fiercely loyal and often passionate about his artistic friends, a quality that would have endeared him to sensitive souls whose own insecurities often yearned for a rock upon which to anchor. Lawrence and Mansfield were the two with whom he was especially close and therefore reciprocal in his influence, but he appears in everyday photographs with many of the Bloomsbury circle and beyond-a fixture and a friend, though not an artist himself. His "Hasidic, anti-materialistic leanings (which at some point may have merged into his Socialist leanings)" (35) would have accorded well with the politics of his artistic friends. He could argue knowledgeably, stir the pot of ideas, inspire.
But if Diment has succeeded in establishing Koteliansky as a noteworthy figure in the...