by Nigel Gibson, June 2013, Algiers
When Sliman Hachi, the director of the Centre National de Recherche Préhistorique Anthropologiques et Historique (CNRPAH), announced that Olivier Fanon had donated his parents’ books to the Centre, the question that Matthieu Renault and I asked was, “When could we take at look at them?” We were in Algiers for a conference on “Africa Today and Fanon” organized by CNRPAH and Matthieu was leaving the next day. The library was a mixture of Frantz and Josie Fanon’s books, so during a break in the conference I asked Olivier Fanon about the collection. Apparently, these were the books that his father had left when he left the country in December 1956 and, as far as I understand, Josie had boxed them up and taken them to Lyon. We can only assume that they developed a new library in Tunis. Certainly, notes Alice Cherki, Fanon liked to frequent the bookstore owned by a Monsieur Levy and at one point asked his assistant Marie-Jeanne Manuellan to purchase everything in the shop by Freud.
We were not totally sure that books published between 1956 and 1961 were only Josie’s since it was not impossible that Josie came back to Algeria with both her books and her husband’s. Nevertheless Matthieu and I made a working assumption that we would not consider anything published after 1956 (including, for example, a whole slew of Mao writings published in 1960) since we could only speculate about what happened to the books Fanon had accumulated in Tunis. Of the 1400 books in the collection, there are roughly 440 that were published in or before 1956. Though we couldn’t be sure which of the 440 were Frantz’s and which were Josie’s (assuming that they didn’t share books), we based our search on the titles in the Centre’s catalogue. It soon became clear that while there were many books from Fanon’s days in France (and referenced in Black Skin White Masks) there were many important volumes that weren’t in the collection. In other words, essential books that Fanon would have definitely owned, like Césaire’s Notebooks to the Return to my Native Land, Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie négre et malgache de langue française, Sartre’s Anti-Semite and the Jew and Being and Nothingness and so on. Nonetheless, for the short time we had available, there would be plenty of material to look at.
We had, perhaps mistakenly, understood from Hachi that we would not have access to the full donation but have to ask for books individually. I had the image of a national library (not the British but the Welsh one actually, which I visited when I was an undergraduate at Aberystwyth 35 years ago) with librarians going into the stacks and bringing back volumes. But when we arrived at the Centre, the staff was a little surprised. The books were in boxes behind a wall of bookshelves. This meant carrying boxes of books and negotiating the narrow space behind the bookshelves. In other words, the catalogue had created an alphabetical/ numerical order but that order didn’t translate to the boxes. That work had not yet been done. The indexers have simply taken books out of the boxes, typed in the author names and titles and put them back in boxes. There was no rhyme or reason why a book was in one box or another and inside the boxes the books were often poorly packed. The boxes themselves weren’t uniform. These were the kind of boxes any one would use to move books: electronics boxes, moving boxes, and so on in all shapes and sizes and some too big and consequently difficult to move when full of books.
Matthieu was interested to find De Beauvoir’s Second Sex and CLR James’ (the first edition of his book had mistakenly named him P.I.R. James) Black Jacobins. I was interested in checking the Marx and Lenin volumes and we both wanted to look at Kojéve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel and Hegel’s Phenomenology.
As we worked our way through the boxes we would skirt Josie’s books, avoid the collected works of Kim Il Sung and Mao, and pass on the many editions of Fanon’s works in translation. I came across some Freud volumes. The Introduction to Psychoanalysis was quite heavily marked up and included such unorthodox comments as “Freud is a paranoiac” and “you are mad in Austria!” Fanon seemed particularly interested in the notes on infantile sexuality in Three Essay on the Theory of Sexuality, but at times seemed equally skeptical: “You exaggerate,” he writes, and notes that Bachelard is better (referring to Gaston Bachelard’s Psychoanalysis of Fire). He also had some fun with Jung, writing in Jung’s Man in Search of his Soul, “Jung is doing sorcery.” Many times in Freud and Jung’s texts (and certainly not only reserved for them) he writes “Salaud,” or just plain “faux.” Then we came across Kojéve and also Hegel’s Phenomenology. Kojéve’s lectures had extensive markings and in The Phenomenology Fanon had marked up the passages he quoted in Black Skin White Masks. But he didn’t stop there. There was also underlinings in the section on Reason.
After each box, we’d pack the books up again. Just before 4 p.m. we had gone through about 15 boxes. I looked around the side of the bookcases, and reckoned that there was at least another 30 to go. The library was closing, so we had to go, but we would return tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. On the way back to where we were staying we stopped at the library of the Dominican Fathers on rue Didouche Mourad to search for one of Fanon’s (unsigned articles) in the short-lived journal Conscience Maghribine. Unfortunately they closed at 3.30 p.m. So that would have to wait for another day.
By the time we arrived at the Centre the next day, the staff had moved out some boxes for us. We began moving through with great speed, only to stop upon finding something interesting, such as Fanon’s notes in Dufrenne’s Karl Jaspers et la philosophie de l’existence. Then I came across Black Jacobins. But sadly it was clean. Nothing there. I came across a book by Daniel Guerin who had contacted Fanon in 1955. I flicked through, looking for any comments. Another copy of Black Jacobins. Same result. Some of the books still had uncut pages that clearly showed that they hadn’t been read. So Fanon hadn’t read the James or the three volumes of Hegel’s Aesthetics. The latter was not surprising. But we did come across Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals and The Birth of Tragedy (the latter not noted in the catalogue), and Dante’s Divine Comedy, though we still hadn’t found Merleau-Ponty. Sense and Nonsense was there, somewhere, and I was particularly interested in checking his essay on Marxism and Philosophy (which of course mentions Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness famously referenced in Edward Said’s “Travelling theory revisited—the only Lukács the library includes is Existentialism ou Marxism but there was nothing written in it). Finally De Beauvoir. Matthieu was happy to find that Fanon had marked the pages on Hegel, and was also interested by the fact that Fanon highlighted the following idea of The Second Sex: “Where customs forbid violence, muscular energy cannot be the basis for domination.” But still we were hoping for more. On the other hand, Madinier’s Conscience et Amour, a work we had not heard of was quite marked up. Matthieu did some on sight translations, the same with Jeanson’s La Phenomenology. Still another 20 boxes to go. Taking books out, putting them back again, we were running out of time.
We came across a number of pamphlets by Lenin. One title, “The Failure of the Second International” was marked up, especially the sections on social chauvinism and parts 3 and 4 of The Civil War in France collected in a volume with the 18th Brumaire. The latter (there were two copies) sadly had little to offer (suggesting that he had worked with another copy), but Fanon had clearly read the Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy (which I think speaks to his comments about Marxism in The Wretched) as well as Plekhanov’s Fundamental Questions of Marxism which was not surprising given the time.
We looked through about thirty boxes. Ten or so were left but we ran out of time (and perhaps the patience of the staff since moving the boxes was labor intensive and the collection is not yet set up to view). We did find Sartre’s What is Literature and saw that Fanon had highlighted Sartre’s remarks about Richard Wright; and we did find a marked up copy of Wright’s Black Boy though Native Son was not included in the collection. A comment in Situations II seemed to sum up our day: “Society without classes”—“utopia, but beautiful,” writes Fanon in the margins.