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Words Without Borders

Reading Adam Phillips

Last fall I briefly met the American author Benjamin Kunkel in a hotel in Amsterdam. All foreign authors who come to Amsterdam stay, for some reason, in the Ambassade Hotel, and since I don’t have an apartment in Amsterdam I stay in the Ambassade Hotel as well. Yes, I do have a mother in Amsterdam, a lovely mother, but both for her sanity and my own, it’s better that I stay in a hotel.
It’s unavoidable in a place like the Ambassade that you run into authors, but my meeting with Mr. Kunkel was no coincidence. We share a publisher in the Netherlands.
We had a cup of coffee, and for one reason or another we started speaking about the psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips. Mr. Kunkel told me he had written an essay about Adam Phillips. He seemed to be critical of Mr. Phillips, and just when he was about to explain why, his publisher came and rushed him to the airport.
Last weekend, the same Dutch publisher got married in New York. The guest of honor was Benjamin Kunkel, who read a short story written especially for the occasion. As far as stories written for weddings and other special occasions go, it was a pretty good one.
At the dinner, I was seated next to Benjamin Kunkel. Beforehand, I had read his novel Indecision, which I liked a lot, but I was not able to find his essay on Adam Phillips.
So unavoidably, our conversation turned in the direction of Mr. Phillips again.
I said that most people I had engaged in a conversation about Mr. Phillips in the last year were rather harsh toward him. A psychiatrist in New York told me that Mr. Phillips is extremely right-wing. I have not found evidence yet of this in his work, but maybe he is. A philosopher in Austria told me that Adam Phillips was pompous, and then a former publisher of mine summarized his work with the unforgettable words, “He can write, but he has absolutely nothing to say.” Maybe I was completely wrong to say this. So this weekend I reread Monogamy, which is one of my favorites of Mr. Phillips’ books. I still liked it a lot. I found it both hilarious and profound.
The problem with opinions is that you sometimes forget to read what is actually printed. The opinion becomes a cloud.

(Words Without Borders, June 2, 2007)