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

Galya Diment

  • Review
By – June 11, 2012

When peo­ple talk about Blooms­bury, they think of Vir­ginia and Leonard Woolf; when they talk about D.H. Lawrence, they think of his wife, Frie­da, or maybe Kather­ine Mans­field or John Mid­dle­ton Mur­ry. Does any­one even men­tion Samuel Kotelian­sky (18801955)? But Kot,” as Leonard Woolf called him, was a key fig­ure, an inti­mate, in both of these lit­er­ary circles. 

A Russ­ian Jew who left Kiev in 1911 to escape the blood libel pogroms, Kot set­tled in Lon­don, and rarely left his own home, much less the city. For­tu­nate­ly, the British were in love with all things Russ­ian at the time, so Kot could eke out a liv­ing trans­lat­ing Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture, espe­cial­ly for the Woolfs’ Hog­a­rth Press. 

Kot was a man of con­tra­dic­tions: a life­long lon­er with a series of intense friend­ships, a metic­u­lous word­smith who wrote rel­a­tive­ly few works of his own, a Jew who sur­round­ed him­self with peo­ple who thought noth­ing of drop­ping the occa­sion­al anti-Semit­ic remark. Rather than inter­pret her subject’s choic­es, Diment sim­ply lays them out for read­ers, to make of them what they will. If Frie­da Lawrence’s casu­al slurs about Jews, or Vir­ginia Woolf’s nasty remarks about her own husband’s ances­try seem star­tling at first, after a while, the read­er, like Kot him­self, begins to learn to ignore the com­ments. While it may seem odd to write the biog­ra­phy of such an intense­ly pri­vate man, the quirk­i­ness of Kot, plus the cat­ty inti­ma­cy of Blooms­bury, add up to a sur­pris­ing­ly engag­ing read. 

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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