Friday, February 08, 2008

W. Somerset Maugham

After I’d finished writing the previous post I went to the library and found a Book Club Associates’ volume containing six stories by W. Somerset Maugham, which includes The Moon and Sixpence. This has an interesting Preface written by Maugham in 1933.

Maugham wrote that he had been living in London, working hard but not earning much money. He had written four or five novels, two of which had not been very successful and he was unknown to the general public. In 1904 he set out for Paris, where he was born, and it was there that he became aware of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. He met men who had known and worked with him and he read the only life of him that existed at that time. It occurred to him that here was the subject of a novel and he kept that in mind for over ten years.

When he went to Tahiti it was with the idea of finding out what he could about Gauguin’s life and again he came across people who had been more or less connected with him. The Moon and Sixpence was written in 1918 in Surrey whilst he was recovering from the tuberculosis he had contracted earlier in the war.

For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles he had used a travel book, A Vagabond Journey round the World by Harry Franck and as he had not acknowledged the source in the novel he was condemned by an angry gentleman in an article in a magazine. This did not bother Maugham, who gladly acknowledged his debt to Franck, but pointed out that he thought it is an absurd notion that a writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. He considered

“The novelist cannot know everything. A great deal of the information necessary to him must be got from other people or from books. … The writers of the past took from one another want they wanted. Many went further and without a sense of shame copied whole passages. This would be reprehensible now that to write books is a commercial proposition, but to make a fuss because one author uses an incident that he has found in another’s is nonsense. By turning it to good account he makes it his own. Books of facts are legitimate quarry for the imaginative writer.”

He then referred to an article a young man had written in which he had copied almost word for word from a chapter in The Moon and Sixpence. He continued:


“It contained not only all the passages I myself had used from Mr Harry Franck’s book, but others that I had written from my own observation in the less reputable quarters (now alas, owing to the economic situation deprived of their garish vivacity) of the ancient city of Marseilles. I calmed the editor’s fears (he saw me bringing an action for infringement of copyright) and begged him to congratulate the writer of the article on his ingenuity.”

Thinking of copyright law (which I confess I don’t really understand) I wonder if there are there many authors who would have the same attitude today?

2 comments:

Angela Young said...

Fascinating post ... copyright law is simple, really. You can use prose extracts of no longer than 400 words from another work in your own, or no more than one quarter of a poem. You have to get the copyright holder's permission for anything longer. Copyright last for 75 years after the author's death ... but there is a debate about whether works of fiction should include bibliographies. I think they should, for the reasons Maugham cites: you can't make everything up from your own head. Others think that because the references in fiction are often indirect, bibliographies shouldn't be included.

And although I've just said copyright law is simple, there are nuances which can make it a minefield. Things which don't involve direct quotation but, for instance, a very similar character ... so it's always a good idea to check first.

BooksPlease said...

Thanks, Angela, that is useful. I knew about the length of time copyright lasts, but not the number of words or part of a poem you could quote.