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Koteliansky, Samuel Solomonovich [known as Kot] (1880–1955), translator and literary associate, was born on 28 February 1880 in Ostropol, Starokonstantinov district, Volhynia province (present-day Ukraine), a part of the Russian empire's vast pale of settlement to which Jews were confined. He was naturalized as a British citizen in 1929, and in his British passport his date of birth is given as 1 April 1880, a discrepancy that is most likely an instance of Koteliansky's self-deprecatory humour. He was one of the five children of Avrum-Shloima Koteliansky (1851–1920), wheat merchant, and his wife, Beila Koteliansky, née Geller (1852–1930), who sold fabrics from the family home. Koteliansky was always interested in literature and history but as a Jew could only enter educational institutions of commerce, which he attended in Zhitomir and Odessa between 1895 and 1899. In 1900 he was expelled for subversive political activities from the Odessa Commercial School and sent back to Ostropol, where he was temporarily put under house arrest. While there, he wrote to Maxim Gorky asking him to donate books to Ostropol's library, a request Gorky readily granted. In 1900 he was allowed to attend the Kiev Commercial Institute, where he studied economics and foreign languages, including English, before graduating in 1910.

In spring 1911 Koteliansky's parents, concerned their son might face further problems with the authorities, paid his way to London. His intention was to stay only for a short time but as a result of the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution, and the civil war in Ukraine, he never returned. In 1912 Koteliansky began work as an interpreter and secretary at the Russian Law Bureau, set up to help Russians in London with immigration and employment matters. In July 1914 an English colleague invited Koteliansky to join him and several others, among them ‘a writer chap with ideas about love’, on a walking tour in the Lake District (Diment, 52). The ‘writer chap’ was D. H. Lawrence who, in turn, introduced Koteliansky—or Kot as he became known to English friends—to the writer Katherine Mansfield and her lover and future husband John Middleton Murry. Through Lawrence, Koteliansky also met the painters Mark Gertler, similarly of East European Jewish descent, and Beatrice Campbell (later Lady Glenavy), both of whom became close friends. Mansfield's adoration of Chekhov predisposed her towards anyone Russian but in Koteliansky she also found a deeply caring confidant. In November 1915 Mansfield and Murry rented their house on 5 Acacia Road, St John's Wood, to Kot and another Russian couple; Koteliansky lived there for the rest of his life, keeping it, in many ways, as a shrine to Mansfield.

Koteliansky's first published translation, Chekhov's The Bet and Other Stories, was undertaken in collaboration with Murry in 1915. Three other Koteliansky–Murry translations followed in 1916: Fyodor Dostoevsky's Pages from the Journal of an Author, Alexander Kuprin's The River of Life and Other Stories, and Leo Shestov's Anton Tchekhov and Other Essays. Buoyed by the prospect of becoming a professional translator, Koteliansky left his job at the law bureau in September of that year. In July 1917 Koteliansky met Leonard and Virginia Woolf and, two years later, he began collaborating with them on translations for their new Hogarth Press. ‘One learned to the full Kot's iron integrity and intensity only by collaborating with him in a Russian translation’, Leonard Woolf wrote in his autobiography (Woolf, Beginning, 248). In 1920 the Hogarth Press published Koteliansky's and Leonard Woolf's translation of Gorky's Reminiscences of Leo Nicolayevitch Tolstoi. Reminiscences proved a considerable success and initiated the transformation of the Hogarth Press from a boutique publisher into one much more serious and commercially viable. In rapid succession Hogarth Press published seven more of Koteliansky's translations, four in collaboration with Leonard Woolf—Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov by Maxim Gorky, Alexander Kuprin, and Ivan Bunin (1921), Anton Chekhov's Note-books Together with Reminiscences of Tchekhov by Maxim Gorky (1921), Autobiography of Countess Tolstoy (1922), and Bunin's Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories (1922)—and three in collaboration with Virginia Woolf: Dostoevsky's Stavrogin's Confessions and the Plan of the Life of a Great Sinner (1922), A. B. Goldenweiser's Talks with Tolstoy (1923), and Tolstoi's Love Letters (1923). D. H. Lawrence helped with the Bunin volume by collaborating with Koteliansky in translating the title story. Given the artistic synergy between Lawrence and Bunin, it still remains among the best English translations of the Russian Nobel laureate.

Koteliansky's personal and professional relationship with Lawrence defined both men's lives. The novelist wrote more letters to Koteliansky than to anyone outside his family. Koteliansky was consumed with devotion to Lawrence and hatred for his wife, Frieda, whom he blamed for everything that he found objectionable in his friend, including his frequent antisemitic outbursts. Lawrence gave a quite unflattering fictional depiction of Kot, as Ben Cooley, in his novel Kangaroo (1923). Koteliansky also influenced Lawrence's art through his translations which extended the English author's knowledge of Russian literature. In 1927, in his review of Koteliansky's translation of Vasily Rozanov's philosophical work Solitaria, Lawrence acknowledged that Rozanov was ‘the first Russian … who has ever said anything to me’. Subsequently Lawrence incorporated what he described as Rozanov's ‘phallic vision’ into his own in the final drafts of Lady Chatterley's Lover (Diment, 178). In January 1930, shortly before his death, Lawrence also wrote an introduction to Koteliansky's translation of the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ chapter of Brothers Karamazov, which remains one of his most remarkable critical essays.

Koteliansky's work for the Hogarth Press ended in 1923, primarily because his uncompromising personality became too much even for the famously forbearing Leonard Woolf. His closest friend, Katherine Mansfield, died from tuberculosis in January of the same year. ‘I loved her so much,’ he wrote to a friend soon after: ‘She could do things that I disliked intensely … yet the way she did it was so admirable, unique’ (Diment, 121). By contrast, Murry described Koteliansky as having ‘pernicious’ influence on his late wife: ‘He filled her with the dangerous dream of being completely cured by the Russian, Manoukhin, from the inevitable failure of which she reacted into the spiritual quackery of Gurdjieff—and death’ (Glenavy, 192). Having parted from the Woolfs, Koteliansky convinced Murry to start a new magazine, The Adelphi. This, he hoped, would both entice Lawrence to return from New Mexico and serve as an outlet for his own translations. The first issue of The Adelphi appeared in June 1923 with several of Koteliansky's translations, but his involvement came to an end a year later following a very public argument with Murry and one of the magazine's editors, Philip Tomlinson.

In 1919 Koteliansky had befriended H. G. Wells and gave him and his son Gip language lessons prior to their visit to Russia in 1920, where Wells met Lenin. Koteliansky, who never married, was later virtually adopted by Gip Wells's family with his wife, Marjorie, taking care of Kot through his illnesses and breakdowns during the last fifteen years of his life. In 1933 Koteliansky secured a job as reader for the Cresset Press, and though his involvement soon became limited, he persuaded Wells to publish his Experiment in Autobiography with the firm. While at the press, Koteliansky also secured books by Dorothy Richardson, Dilys Powell, and May Sarton, a rare American in his circle, all of whom became friends. Other new friendships included the Dublin-born writer James Stephens, from whom he was virtually inseparable during the 1930s, Juliette Huxley, and Ottoline Morrell. However, the 1930s were also marked by illness and personal losses. In 1930 came the deaths of D. H. Lawrence and Koteliansky's mother, whom he revered but had not seen since leaving Russia. In 1936 he suffered a severe nervous breakdown and relied heavily for care and support on Marjorie Wells and Ottoline Morrell, who died unexpectedly in 1938. A year later Mark Gertler, to whom Koteliansky was especially close, committed suicide.

In 1940 and 1941 Penguin issued two thin volumes of Koteliansky's translations of Chekhov's plays and Russian short stories. Unlike some of his friends, including James Stephens, Koteliansky stayed in London during the blitz. Virginia Woolf's suicide in March 1941 was another ‘great blow’, as he acknowledged to May Sarton (Diment, 266). This was also a period of concern for his remaining family in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, until in 1943 he learned of his sister's escape, and for friends when news broke in 1944 of Babi Yar and the massacre of thousands of Jews in and around Ostropol. After the war Koteliansky's bouts of depression grew more severe and in 1947 he tried to kill himself by cutting his throat. His subsequent treatment included repeated electroshock sessions which led to memory loss. In 1951 Murry published his letters from Katherine Mansfield; these contained almost no mention of Koteliansky, which was a further cause of deep upset to him. Koteliansky's health continued to deteriorate and he died at Hampstead General Hospital, Hampstead, London, on 22 January 1955 of heart failure. His ashes were scattered on 26 January in the garden of the Golders Green crematorium, London. In his will Koteliansky bequeathed his letters from Lawrence, Mansfield, and others to the British Museum.

Galya Diment

Sources  

G. Diment, A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: the life and times of Samuel Koteliansky (2011) · The quest for Rananim: D. H. Lawrence's letters to S. S. Koteliansky, 1914 to 1930, ed. G. Zytaruk (1970) · B. Glenavy, Today we will only gossip (1964) · J. Carswell, Lives and letters: A. R. Orage, Katherine Mansfield, Beatrice Hastings, John Middleton Murry, S. S. Koteliansky, 1906–1957 (1978) · M. Sarton, I knew a phoenix (1954) · C. Carswell, The savage pilgrimage (1932) · G. Zytaruk, D. H. Lawrence's response to Russian literature (1971) · L. Woolf, Beginning again: an autobiography of the years 1911–1918 (1964) · L. Woolf, Downhill all the way: autobiography of the years 1919–1939 (1967) · The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 5 vols. (1977–84) · J. H. Willis, Leonard and Virginia Woolf as publishers: the Hogarth Press, 1917–1941 (1992) · New Statesman and Nation (5 Feb 1955) · The Times (27 Jan 1955) · O. Edwards, ‘The captain's doll’, The Times (16 May 1965) · A. Rogatchevski, ‘Samuel Koteliansky and the Bloomsbury circle’, Forum for Modern Languages, 36 (2000), 368–85 · O. Kaznina, ‘S. S. Kotelianskii i angliiskie pisateli’, (1997)

Archives  

BL, corresp. and papers · priv. coll. |  U. Edin. L., letters to S. Waterlow · U. Reading L., corresp. with Hogarth Press · U. Sussex L., letters to Leonard Woolf


Likenesses  

Chesney, vintage postcard print, c.1912, NPG, London · B. Campbell, group portrait, c.1920 (with Katherine Mansfield), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand · M. Gertler, portraits, 1921–30, priv. coll.; repro. in Modern British paintings, drawings & sculpture (Agnew’s, 1991), 28 · vintage snapshot prints, 1931–5, NPG, London · photographs, BL, correspondence and papers · photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£1412 14s. 2d.: probate, 17 March 1955, CGPLA Eng. & Wales