Xavier Mauméjean’s French biography of Henry Darger, ‘Dans les royaumes de l’irréel’ or ‘In the Realms of the Unreal’ is excellent. It would be a mistake to see the book as only of interest to a French-speaking audience. Despite the title of the biography, with its focus on Darger’s epic fantasy, the ‘Realms’ – Mauméjean’s sources aren’t limited to that work. Mauméjean’s biography refreshes our understanding of Henry Darger by drawing on the whole range of writings that Darger left behind in his one-room apartment at 851 Webster Ave, Chicago, including his autobiography, his diaries, and many other pieces, as well as contemporary sources – plus references to Bachelard and Foucault (while always remaining accessible).
There’s special focus on the follow-up to the ‘Realms’, the work known as ‘Further Adventures in Chicago’, which transports his heroines the Vivian sisters to the streets of contemporary Chicago. If you’re not familiar with ‘Further Adventures’, it’s a revelation, partly because it’s written in a totally different style than the ‘Realms’. Despite many fantastical and supernatural elements, it’s mostly in a realist vein, and challenges the received idea that Darger was an artist-writer who did not consciously create.
Here, Darger describes the impact of poverty, and the influence of the environment or unemployment in the city. Darger ponders the question of ‘nature vs. nurture’, and uses terms like the ‘psychological moment’. It’s a refreshing change to see Darger as the observer, instead of Darger being psychoanalysed himself.
There’s much more to say about Mauméjean’s biography. It’s very rewarding – a perfect example of looking at something closely and discovering something new. It would be great to see an English-language version.