Plotkin cover

David George Plotkin: A Life in Letters

Pearl G. Fabula

469pp. Paper. $22.95.

This is the first biography of Samuel Roth’s favorite ghostwriter, David George Plotkin, one of the more elusive figures in mid-twentieth-century American literature. Born in New York City, Plotkin (1899–?) was a lawyer and a poet. He met Roth in the early 1940s, when he was living in Woodstock, NY. His wife had just left him, and his beloved mother was dying; when Roth invited him to write a novel about Singapore—where he had never been, and about which he knew more or less nothing—he accepted the assignment. “I will tell you what I will do,” he told Roth, “I will project my imagination out into the Far East and write an allegory about me and my wife.”

The result was Rage in Singapore, a novel which imagined the Asian city-state overrun by the Japanese Army, who commit countless atrocities on the innocent population. It would have been a very strange book, if the Japanese Army had not in fact overrun Singapore just as Plotkin completed his manuscript, transforming his novel into an unwitting work of fact. Plotkin was terrified. Did his allegory possess some strange power to bring about events in the real world? Was there a connection between him, his wife, and the city of Singapore?

Plotkin fled to Montana, where he wrote The Plot Against America (1946), an exposé of the isolationist Senator Burton Wheeler. Then he returned to New York, and wrote another book for Roth: My Sister and I (1951), an incest memoir attributed to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), which was in fact an allegory of Plotkin’s courtship of his wife, mixed in with thoughts about love and impermanence that had occurred to him over the years. Plotkin wrote Maxwell Bodenheim’s memoir My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (1954), then he went into psychoanalysis, which inspired him to write The Sexual Diary of Sigmund Freud, an allegory of his relationship with his mother. The 1,600-page manuscript was never published, and Fabula argues that something in Plotkin collapsed at that point: his ability to tell fiction from fact, or at least, his belief in the utility of doing so.

In 1960, Plotkin confessed to the Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann that he had written My Sister and I—but, strangely, the memoir’s authorship remained in dispute (it is still disputed). It was as if Plotkin had really become Nietzsche, the way he had become Singapore. In 1961, he wrote a monograph entitled My Wife, The Key To All Realities, which has become a classic in the literature of paranoid schizophrenia, alongside Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness and Louis Wolfson’s Le schizo et les langues. A copy of My Wife even made its way into the hands of Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), who used Plotkin (under a slightly transformed name) as a character in his 1962 novel Pale Fire.

The last years of Plotkin’s life are obscure, even to his biographer. Nor does any record of his death exist; Fabula suggests that he “may simply have become someone else.” Despite its odd conclusion, we are confident that David George Plotkin: A Life in Letters will be of interest to literary historians and mental-health professionals alike.

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