Your Next Favorite Novelist: Shelly Brivic
by Sara Curnow Wilson
Shelly Brivic likes a good joke. When setting up our interview, he suggested that I call after 11 a.m.
"But if a man answers, hang up," he said.
Brivic retired this year after more than 45 years in the English Department. At his retirement celebration he remarked, “I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake for so long that it takes me an hour to read a stop sign.”
His sense of humor is one of the many things that make him a beloved colleague and professor—something I can attest to, nearing the end of my seventh year working with him as a graduate student. Another is his extreme dedication: I’d say that he will be sorely missed in Anderson Hall, but he’s still on campus every week.
Shelly, an eminent James Joyce scholar, started working at Temple in 1969. He was hired shortly before finishing his dissertation on Joyce. The dissertation became his first book; his seventh will be out later this year. He’s also working on a novel. He describes it as short and sad, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s not also funny.
What was the first thing you read by Joyce?
I don’t actually remember, but it was probably Dubliners.
I think that’s how I would answer that question, too.
You know, it was 50 years ago.
I know, I don’t remember either and it would have only been ten or fifteen for me. I knew that you went to Bronx Science High School, but I didn’t realize until your retirement celebration that you went to school with Chip Delaney.
Yes, I almost told the story [at the celebration] that there was a school literary magazine that was mimeographed, which means it was purple. And I looked at a page of the school literary magazine and there was a description of a street. And I said wow, that person can really write. And it turns out later that that was Chip Delaney.
And then you ended up at Temple together. Am I correct that you have six books?
Yes, I have six and I just got news that Syracuse received the manuscript that I’ve been working on. So the seventh one is really done. In fact, if I were to die tomorrow they could just correct it. There’s no reason for me to think that I’m not going to be around for another dozen years, but it is done. It is called Revolutionary Damnation and it’s going to be published in the fall. The thesis of the book is that all the best Irish novels take place in hell, as a way of protesting the fact that the country is a theocracy. And it works out rather well. It works especially well with Samuel Beckett.
Yeah, I was going to say.
The most obvious example of being in hell is Waiting for Godot. The book covers around twelve Irish novelists.
Thanks. Now I’m going to finish up my novel. Someone I know is starting a publishing house and she’s probably going to publish it. It’s a short, sad novel.
That’s very exciting. I love short, sad novels so I’ll like it, I’m sure.
I hope so.
What advice would you give to a young academic beginning a career now?
Believe in what you’re doing and be committed, but also try to develop skills that will help you market yourself, such as technology and new ideas that are fashionable.
That’s good advice. How has higher education changed since you started your career?
There are good things—we’ve opened up the canon, for instance—but I regret that the category of serious literature doesn’t have such a big presence. Serious literature occupies a smaller place, and that’s a shame because it’s the way people learn how to think. So, you know, I’d have to register a complaint in that area. I had a very good class on Ulysses this semester so there are still good people around.
Do you think the students are different than they used to be?
Well, they have more inquisitive minds. They are more geared toward technology and so technology might give them advantages but it also takes them away from thoughtfulness, I guess. But I have had fantastic students, so I’m happy there are still brilliant people coming up interested in literature. I can say that.
Besides your novel, what are your plans for retirement?
Well I mentioned that I retired to write and I’m hoping to do a second novel and, if I can, I hope to become a novelist. If not, I’ll write scholarship, which I enjoy. I have quite a few ideas for books I could write.
Great. Well, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me. I have just one more question. And that question is—have you heard any good jokes lately?
Well, you’ve heard the one about God, right?
I’m not sure.
Oh, well a man asks God: “What does a million years mean?” And God says, “To me, a million years is just a second.” So the man says “Well, what does a million dollars mean to you?” And God says “A million dollars is just a penny.” So the man says “Well, can I borrow a penny?” and God says “Sure, just wait a second.”
That’s good. I like that one. Thanks, Shelly!