The author, a perennial contender for the Nobel prize in literature, was named winner of the Man Booker International at the Sydney Writers' Festival today, beating a stellar, if eclectic, shortlist. Also in the running were the British children's author Philip Pullman, award-winning Chinese writer Su Tong, American authors Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson, Australia's David Malouf and a reluctant John le Carré, who had asked – unsuccessfully – for his name to be withdrawn from contention.
Announcing the winner, Rick Gekoski, chair of the judges, said that for 50 years, Roth's books have "stimulated, provoked and amused an enormous, and still expanding, audience".
"His imagination has not only recast our idea of Jewish identity, it has also reanimated fiction, and not just American fiction, generally," said Gekoski. "His career is remarkable in that he starts at such a high level, and keeps getting better. In his 50s and 60s, when most novelists are in decline, he wrote a string of novels of the highest, enduring quality. Indeed, his most recent, Nemesis (2010), is as fresh, memorable, and alive with feeling as anything he has written. His is an astonishing achievement."
Roth thanked the judges for awarding him "this esteemed prize". "One of the particular pleasures I've had as a writer is to have my work read internationally, despite all the heartaches of translation that that entails," he said. "I hope the prize will bring me to the attention of readers around the world who are not familiar with my work. This is a great honour and I'm delighted to receive it."
The £60,000 biannual Man Booker International is awarded for a writer's "achievement in fiction", and considers a body of work rather than, like its sister prize the Man Booker, a single novel. Won in the past by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare and Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, it does not accept submissions from publishers. Instead a panel of judges – this year featuring Gekoski, publisher and author Carmen Callil and novelist Justin Cartwright – select their finalists from the stage of world literature, with the provision that their works are "generally available" in English translation.
The author of 31 novels to date, Roth made a mark on the literary scene from the very beginning. His debut Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, was described by Saul Bellow as "a first book but ... not the book of a beginner".
"Unlike those of us who come howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr Roth appears with nails, hair, teeth, speaking coherently. He is skilled, witty, energetic and performs like a virtuoso," said Bellow at the time.
Ten years later, Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint, described by the New Yorker as "one of the dirtiest books ever published", caused waves of outrage for its explicit descriptions of sex and masturbation. "Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!" Portnoy says to his psychoanalyst.
However, it was the magisterial trio of late period novels - 1997's American Pastoral, 1998's I Married a Communist and The Human Stain in 2000 - that secured his reputation as one of his country's greatest living writers. "The mixture of rage and elegy in the book is remarkable," said Michael Wood, reviewing American Pastoral in the New York Times, "and you have only to pause over the prose to feel how beautifully it is elaborated."
In recent years a regular favourite to bring the Nobel back to America, and a three-time finalist for the Man Booker International, Roth is no stranger to awards, having won the Pulitzer for American Pastoral, the National Book Award (twice, for Goodbye, Columbus and Sabbath's Theater) and the PEN/Faulkner award (three times, for Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman).
"All of his novels demonstrate an extraordinary, lively and witty prose, crammed with ironies and changes of perspective," said Cartwright. "The Jew, particularly the sexually liberated Jew, in postwar America has been his subject. He can be devastatingly frank and even ruthless in his treatment of his characters ... There is no question, Philip Roth is one of the great writers of our era."