Next to the originator of a great sentence is the first quoter of it. Said Emerson. Stories happen only to people who know how to tell them. Said Thucydides. A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel, is money for old rope. Said David Markson. The quotation of a misquotation is still a misquotation. Said @Thucydiocy.
Interestingly, it was last December that this line attributed to Thucydides first appeared on Twitter, and rapidly disappeared again – it isn’t a hardy perennial like some quotes. This week, it reemerged:
Stories happen only to people who know how to tell them. Said Thucydides.#DavidMarkson
— Señor Hijas (@TedDaughters) December 15, 2016
Senor Hijas didn’t take kindly to being informed that this wasn’t actually Thucydides, nor to the suggestion that this might have been clearer with some quotation marks, to show that “Said Thucydides” was part of the quote rather than his own attribution, but I am at any rate grateful to him for pointing me towards David Markson’s The Last Novel. Not a writer I’d encountered before, and David Foster Wallace’s enthusiastic recommendation of his work tends to have the opposite effect as far as I’m concerned, so I wouldn’t have encountered this unaided.
The Last Novel (2007) consists largely of gnomic little quotations and anecdotes about writers, with occasional references to the character Novelist (from the same page as the Thucydides reference quoted above, p.12: “And thus in which Novelist will say more about himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so, but rarely otherwise.”). It becomes clear, more or less, that Novelist is elderly, possibly dying, writing this book (which may be his last) in a manner that is clearly intended to impel the reader to search for hidden meanings in the quotations and anecdotes. If stories happen only to those who know how to tell them, does the absence of story here imply the inability of Novelist to write anything worth reading? Or is the story precisely of a kind that can be told only by someone able to communicate solely through other people’s fragments? And so forth.
To be honest, my crude literary judgement is that this is Flaubert’s Parrot by someone who can’t be bothered to do detailed research, and so has instead simply plundered a couple of anthologies of literary quotations. If you assume that it’s clever and meaningful, then there are presumably hours of fun to be had in contemplating whether a misquotation in such a context is a deliberate misquotation, emphasising the essential fragility of all our knowledge and the ease with which a literary persona can be constructed out of fragments, or whether Markson just picked it up from one of the ‘How to Write’ books where it first appears, and didn’t bother to check its authenticity.
There is a second reference to Thucydides, on p.107, which does offer a bit of evidence in Markson’s favour:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
America is now given over to a damned mob of scribbling women. Determined Hawthorne, in 1855.
The greatest achievement for a woman is to be as seldom as possible spoken of, said Thucydides. Who mentions not one of them in his history.
Johnson’s Lives of the Poets – which mentions none either.
At any rate this particulat formulation doesn’t appear anywhere on the internet before Markson’s novel, suggesting that he has taken the idea and put it into his own words rather than simply lifted it from somewhere. (It does then appear on a few occasions, for example at the head of Chapter VII (p.189) of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra from 2010 giving Markson as the translator).
I remain unconvinced by the whole enterprise…