Tributes pour in for literary giant Philip Roth

Jennie MATTHEW
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US novelist Philip Roth won most top literary honors but the coveted Nobel Literature Prize eluded him

Tributes poured in Wednesday honoring the late US literary giant Philip Roth, whose prolific career as a novelist, essayist and critic chronicled the American experience in the 20th century.

Roth's death Tuesday night in a Manhattan hospital, from congestive heart failure, was confirmed by The Wylie Agency who represented him.

He is to be laid to rest next week at Bard College, where he taught and where political theorist Hannah Arendt is also buried. A memorial is being planned in New York, possibly in September, his biographer Blake Bailey said.

His death left the literary world in mourning for a writer celebrated for exploring American themes, the Jewish experience and male sexuality, often with darkly comic humor, whose work was once extolled by Barack Obama.

"He was a giant, an artist as versatile and virtuoso as Sinatra, acidulous and subversive as Groucho, charming and formidable as Feynman, graceful and fireballing as Koufax," wrote novelist and short-story writer Michael Chabon.

Roth was widely considered the last living great, white, male American novelist, who along with Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike helped define what it meant to be American in the latter half of the 20th century.

"We all wanted to be Philip Roth. None of us came close," tweeted Michael Green, the producer and Oscar-nominated screenplay writer.

"Never created an uncomplicated hero, and we wouldn't have had it any other way. Remarkable writer," wrote actor, writer and musician Michael McKean.

- Nobel snub -

Roth found fame with the wildly graphic "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for "American Pastoral." His "Plot against America" found renewed significance under the Donald Trump presidency and he published "Nemesis," his final novel, in 2010, before announcing his retirement in 2012.

"He was more precise and insightful, more intellectually adept and downright witty than most any person of any age," said David Simon, creator of acclaimed drama "The Wire" who is adapting "Plot Against America" for the small screen.

"What a marvelous, rigorous mind," he tweeted.

The author of some two dozen novels, his titanic literary stature was rooted in the universality of his message. "I don't write Jewish, I write American," he said in his own words.

A prolific essayist, critic and novelist, the 1990s were the height of his productivity, exemplified by his widely admired trilogy -- "American Pastoral" (1997), "I Married a Communist" (1998) and "The Human Stain" (2000).

The decorated author received the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2010, and won a litany of major awards in the United States and around the world, but the coveted Nobel Literature Prize eluded him.

Being snubbed for the Nobel every year had "become a joke" for the author, said his friend, French writer Josyane Savigneau. "Every year we talked about it, it became funny," Savigneau said Wednesday.

He divided his time between New York, where he spent the winters, and his 18th century farmhouse in Connecticut, where he wrote in a converted out-house.

- 'Driven perfectionist' -

Philip Milton Roth was born on March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, the grandson of European Jews who were part of the 19th-century wave of immigration to the United States. His father was an insurance broker.

In 2012, Roth confirmed that "Nemesis" would be his last novel, after having reread all his books.

"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 ... I no longer feel this dedication to write what I have experienced my whole life."

In 2016, Roth bequeathed his entire personal collection of over 3,500 books to the Newark Public Library, which he called "my first other home" and where he spent time reading and writing while he was growing up.

Friend and writer Judith Thurman said that after he stopped writing Roth spent his free time reading and swimming, and meeting friends.

"He was such a driven perfectionist, so when he felt his power ebbing, he wanted to quit at the top of his game, and he did," CNN quoted her as saying.

Roth acknowledged as much in an interview this year with The New York Times, saying he was "no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration."

Times book critic Dwight Garner paid tribute to a "peerless chronicler of sex and death," an "archwizard" whose best books "eat into the mind like acid."

"The death of Philip Roth marks, in its way, the end of a cultural era as definitively as the death of Pablo Picasso did in 1973," he wrote.

burs/jm