David Macey, who has died of lung cancer aged 62, was one of the finest intellectual historians of his generation. He published studies of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon as well as a dictionary of critical theory and many essays and reviews. He was a prolific and elegant translator, with a tally of translations amounting to some 60 books. Spending most of his life outside literary London, and the antithesis of the pushy networker, David deserved to be far more celebrated than he was.
I published all four of his full-length books under four different imprints. We met in 1980 through John Taylor and his partner, Elaine Capizzi. The three of them formed the British Timor Solidarity Campaign and kept up a stream of bulletins on the situation facing the Timorese people under Indonesian occupation.
After reading David's marvellously lucid essays in Radical Philosophy, I suggested that he write a book for Verso about Lacan, then a huge and inscrutable presence in the literary and philosophical landscape. In 1988 David produced Lacan in Contexts, a careful account of what Lacan may be taken to mean and how he formed his allusive, punning style. The book was very good on the afterlife, especially on the almost hysterical reverence for Lacanian thought in British film and literary studies during the 1970s and 80s.
The Lives of Michel Foucault (Hutchison, 1993) earned the accolade of adoption by the French publisher Gallimard, a company highly resistant to the work of British intellectuals unless they are of extreme and long established eminence. The book's temperate and adult tone was too much for some of Foucault's more feverish acolytes – there is something about postwar French thought that reduces commentators to a state of uncritical fandom – but it will outlive a great many other books in its field. The biography drew on careful interviews with those closest to a philosopher who was fiercely reticent about his past, and had left as little documentation as possible that might help those trying to retrace his life.
His Frantz Fanon: A Life (Granta, 2000) is one of the best reflections on France and Algeria, on the intricacies of Fanon's anti-imperialism and of postcolonial thought. David navigated the minefields of the latter with consummate tact and good sense. He managed to chip away the mythological carapace that had grown up around this celebrated intellectual.
As Adam Shatz wrote in the New York Times, Macey's life of Fanon is "the best, the most intellectually rigorous and the most judicious" treatment yet published. It rescued Fanon from his reputation as merely an apostle of violence and his later fate as a champion of "postcolonial" literary criticism, obsessed with identity and sexuality. He treated Fanon's wilder predictions and aphorisms with due scepticism. A French translation of the book will be published in December 2011.
The son of a miner, David was born in Sunderland and grew up in Houghton-le-Spring. He retained a deep affection for the north-east and an abiding interest in its history. He went to Durham Johnston grammar school and studied French at University College London, where he did his PhD on Paul Nizan, the dissident communist intellectual. David met Margaret Atack while they were students at London. They married in 1988.
In the 1970s, David was interested in the attempts to link Marxism and psychoanalysis, and was involved in various leftwing theoretical circles. He remained a highly critical, independent radical. From 1974 he taught part-time at North London Polytechnic (now part of the University of North London), UCL and City University, but when Margaret was offered a permanent post at Leeds University in 1981, he left university teaching behind and became a full-time translator and writer. In 1989 Margaret became head of the school of humanities at Sunderland, and there they adopted three children. In 1993 they returned to Leeds.
David and Margaret's decision to adopt at once had an enormous impact on their lives. The final book that we published together was the most surprising of all, a deeply personal account of his and Margaret's experience. He wrote it under a pseudonym and it was published under a certain veil of secrecy. It is a moving, disturbing and unforgettable book because David wished to warn others about how prospective parents may not be told about what their adopted children have gone through before they enter their new lives, and how old damage can explode in the new family with devastating results. His account of how he and Margaret and the children overcame these difficulties is inspiring, but it does not have a single note of false sentimentality.
A modestly brilliant person who seemed to have read everything and was incisive and careful in his judgments, David was one of the most exceptional writers with whom I had the privilege of working. He would send me his work in progress, draft chapters and fragments of chapters. These were so beautifully composed that it was like receiving a book in serial form. He had a way of rendering the most complex ideas in notoriously opaque fields of thought accessible to the intelligent lay reader.
We were always talking about new projects. He had an idea for a book about Paris during the German occupation that was never to be written, though I suspect there may be some of those wonderful fragments lurking among his papers.
He is survived by Margaret, their children, Aaron, John and Chantelle, his grandchildren, Marni, Zak, Sophie and Leo, and his sister, Marion.
• David Macey, author and translator, born 5 October 1949; died 7 October 2011 Dr David Macey 1949—2011 - VersoBooks.com
David Macey | Progressive Geographies