A Jew D. H. Lawrence Loved and Ridiculed
Galya Diment's Book on an Unknown Member of the Bloomsbury Set
A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury
by Galya Diment
(McGill-Queens University Press, $59.95)
Before favorably reviewing A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky, I must spend a few words on what connects the writer of the blurb on the book's jacket to the book's writer. The blurb is by Brian Boyd, the author of Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery (one of the best criticisms of Vladimir Nabokov's fifth and most complicated English language novel) and two thick biographies, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. The book is by Galya Diment, a University of Washington professor who made a significant contribution to Nabokov scholarship in 1997 with Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel.
So Nabokov is the connection between Diment and Boyd, who lives in New Zealand and recently and rather surprisingly wrote a book that departed from Nabokov scholarship to explore the slippery slopes of evolutionary psychology, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction.
I must also spend a few words on why Boyd adopted the literary form of evolutionary psychology—he calls it "evocriticism," but it usually goes under the name "literary Darwinism"—a relatively new method of narrative analysis that is done badly by some (David P. Barash) and brilliantly by others (William Flesch). Boyd felt that the more traditional or established tools for literary interpretation had become stale and unproductive. Instead of looking for the same old signs of class conflict in novels, he uses evolutionary psychology to look for signs of reproductive success or failure. Diment's book, however, doesn't have a commitment to this or any other meaning-generating machines. Her entire commitment is to accuracy. She is pre- and post-theory, both futuristic and quaint.
This is one of the pleasures of reading Diment's new book—her rigorous research into the life of Samuel Koteliansky, a Russian Jew who, by an accident of history, found himself in the heart of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of intellectuals (E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, et al.) who dominated English high culture in the first half of the 20th century. A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury is not guided by the machine of an argument, but by her sensitivity to the facts of what I call the human substance: our complexities and frailties, our strong and soft words, our ups and down, our neediness and grudges, our moments with friends and enemies.
Koteliansky was born in 1880 in Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, to a family that was a touch above middle class. He learned European languages and basic business/administrative skills at the Kiev Commercial Institute. He left Russia for England in 1911, shortly after the death of a 12-year-old Christian boy was blamed on the Jews and a "new wave of harsh pogroms was widely expected." In London, he met the novelist D. H. Lawrence during a walking tour of the Lake District. The two became friends, and Lawrence opened the door to the Bloomsbury world. Koteliansky—known simply as Kot, as the Brits had difficulty pronouncing and spelling his name—developed friendships with Katherine Mansfield, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, the painter Mark Gertler, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, and the sister of the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley.
Koteliansky turned out to be at the right place at the right time. In 1911, the Imperial Russian Ballet (the Ballets Russes) toured England and took "London by storm." Anything to do with Russia was suddenly in high demand. In 1915, Kot began his career as a translator with Anton Chekhov's The Bet and Other Stories. In 1920, he found success with a translation of Maksim Gorky's Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy—one of the reasons for its popularity was the raunchy comments Tolstoy made about women: "Once, seeing a large peasant woman working on the flowerbed in a park 'shaking her ten-pound breasts,' Tolstoy remarked: 'If the aristocracy had not from time to time mated with such horse-women as she, they would have died out long ago.'" Kot also found himself fictionalized in Lawrence's eighth novel, Kangaroo—the fictional Kot was not as nice or human as the real one.
The greatness of A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury is how easily and fully it immerses you not into the stream of Kot's mind but the relationships that constituted his world. Some of these relationships were crazy, such as the one with Lawrence, an Englishman who never had a nice thing to say about Jews. From the first page of Diment's fourth chapter: "'This is the slave trick of the Jews—they use the great religious consciousness as a trick for personal conceit. This is abominable ... A Jew cringes before men, and takes God as a Christian takes whiskey, for his own self-indulgence.' The letter astounds not because of what it expresses, since it is consistent with Lawrence's other pronouncements on Jews and their religion, but because he was addressing it directly to a Jewish friend of whom he was supposedly quite fond." Almost all of Lawrence's letters are this nutty. Kot's other relationships were more sane and sometimes deeply touching, such as his friendship with H. G. Wells's daughter-in-law.
The closest Diment comes to a theory—and it's more a theme, a leitmotif, than a theory—is when she relates Kot's times (the pogroms in Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Nazism, the murder of millions of Jews) to his mental state. Kot suffered severe depressions and once, a year after the war, attempted suicide.
Diment writes with great care and sympathy but no jargon. You will read this book with the ease with which you look at a huge, marvelous, strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes sad tree.