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(photo credit: AP)
Literary awards are old news for Philip Roth, but his latest honor is truly special: The first ever PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, a $40,000 prize named for the late Nobel laureate and one of Roth's closest friends and literary heroes.
"To my mind, Saul Bellow and William Faulkner form the backbone of 20th-century American literature," Roth said after being named the prize's first winner.
"The initial selection of Philip Roth sets a very high standard and bodes well for the establishment of this prize as one of the pre-eminent awards of American literature," historian and recent PEN American president Ron Chernow said in a statement issued by the U.S. center for the international writers organization.
The Bellow prize was conceived during Chernow's time as PEN president, a one-year term that ended in March. He declined to seek re-election, citing personal reasons, and has been succeeded by author Francine Prose.
The 74-year-old Roth, known for such novels as Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral, has won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize. He recently became the first three-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize, chosen for Everyman, a novel about illness and mortality inspired in part by the death of Bellow, in April 2005.
Bellow's many classics include Henderson the Rain King, Herzog and Seize the Day. In his statement, Roth singled out Bellow's exuberant breakthrough book, The Adventures of Augie March, which came out in 1953.
"Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is the most important book published in English in the second half of the 20th century," Roth said.
"I make this claim not only because of my admiration for its astonishing literary properties but because it has had the widest influence of any book from that period on any number of excellent novelists, not only in America but throughout the English-speaking world. How could I be anything but thrilled to receive an award bearing Saul Bellow's name?"
The new PEN award, established with the cooperation of the Bellow estate, will be given every two years and was made possible by a grant from the author and philanthropist Evelyn Stefansson Nef.
The prize will be voted on by a panel of three PEN members or "similarly qualified persons," and goes to a "distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career which place him or her in the highest rank of American literature."
Bellow's widow, Janis Bellow, was one of this year's judges and said in a statement issued by PEN: "My husband would have been greatly pleased to learn that Philip Roth is the recipient of the first Saul Bellow Award. I am, of course, delighted that PEN has seen fit to honor my husband by establishing this prize."