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Americas

'Extraordinary brilliance' - remembering US literature giant Philip Roth

media Philip Roth in New York in 2010 REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

Tributes are pouring in from across the world following the death of the novelist Philip Roth, who has passed away at the age of 85.

Born into a Jewish-American family in New Jersey in 1933, Roth was the grandson of eastern European émigrés who moved to the United States in the 19th century.

Widely recognised as one of the great American writers of his generation - Roth's novels explored what it was to be male, Jewish and American in the second half of the 20th century.

“I’ll always remember the extraordinary brilliance and energy of the way he wrote about American life; what it was to be a man in 20th-century America, what it was to be a Jewish person in America,” Hermione Lee, a British academic and friend of Roth, told RFI.

“And he skilfully moved from writing about the crisis of men in the world to writing more widely and prophetically about American history,” she said.

Hermione Lee remembers Philip Roth
Legacy of Philip Roth dies at 85 - hermione lee 23/05/2018 Listen

Many of his books shocked middle America.

His 1969 novel, Portnoy's Complaint - about the lustful urges of a Jewish boy - won him notoriety as a scandalous breaker of taboos.

“He used to make me laugh so much,” his friend and journalist Josyane Savigneau told RFI. “Above all he was funny, that’s what I’ll remember about Philip.”

Portnoy’s Complaint charts the hilariously creative lengths to which the protagonist, Alexander Portnoy goes in order to get his sexual kicks. All of this under the pressure of an overbearing Jewish mother.

Believed in outrage

“He was an outrageous writer,” says Lee. “He believed in offence and outrage. What he is writing against is conformity.”

Critics were quick to try to draw parallels between Roth’s own life and Portnoy’s. Some people labelled him  a self-hating Jew – a charge which he firmly denied.

"I don't write Jewish, I write American," was Roth’s retort.

He continued writing late into his life and his historical novel American Pastoral won him a Pulitzer in 1998.

That was the first book in trilogy completed by I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).

No Nobel

Even though Roth won dozens of accolades over his career, he was never awarded the greatest in his trade, the Nobel.

Josyane Savigneau told the AFP news agency that missing out on the prize had "become a joke" for Roth.

"Every year we talked about it, it became funny," she said, adding that he was in good company - Marcel Proust and James Joyce had also missed out on the prize.

In 2012, after having reread all his books, Roth said that his most recent book, Nemesis, published two years earlier, would be his last.

"I decided that I was done with fiction," he said.

"I don't want to read any more of it, write any more of it, and I don't even want to talk about it anymore. It's enough. I no longer feel this dedication to write what I have experienced my whole life."

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