a rope fastened between
critical reflections translations language games

The Autobiography of Postman Cheval and a Description of the Ideal Palace, Part I

July 5, 2021


One day in 1879, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, forty-three years of age, decided to build himself a palace. He was a postman in Hauterives in southeastern France. He began to gather stones during his daily rounds and bind them together using lime, mortar and cement. He drew inspiration eclectically from religions, history and imagery from across the world. In 1912, he was seventy-six years old and his Ideal Palace (Palais Idéal) was complete. People thought him insane. He, too, often espoused this view as a possibility. It was only near the end of his life that his chef-d’œuvre was recognized as such, by figures such as André Breton, Anaïs Nin and Pablo Picasso among others. Cheval carved the following lines on the walls of the Palace’s northern façade:

Cette merveille dont l’auteur peut être fier,
Sera unique dans l’Univers.

Its creator’s pride, this marvel
In the Universe will be unparalleled.

This is the first part of my translation of Cheval’s autobiography1.

Note that this autobiography has, apparently, been translated into English before. The Wikipedia article on Cheval seems to indicate this. I have, however, not been able to access that or those translation/s.

I decided to translate the autobiography so as to experience Cheval as only a translator can. For the act of translation, I think, involves inhabiting the author’s voice and following his or her thought stream more closely than any reader, writer, anthropologist or student of the Other ever would or could. And Cheval is a fascinating character, a sort of cross between Don Quixote, Ozymandias and a “peasant” (as he calls himself).

The translation, part I

This short autobiography was written by Ferdinand Cheval in March, 1905. He was sixty-nine years at the time. The autobiography contains precious details about his life and the creation of his “Ideal Palace” (Palais Idéal). The original lies in the hands of Cheval’s descendants. We reproduce it here scrupulously.

“A son of peasants, a peasant, I wish my life and death to prove that in my category there are also men of genius and energy. For twenty-nine years, I have been a rural postman.

Work is my glory and honor my sole joy. For the present, here is my strange story. Wherein a dream has become, forty years later, a reality.

I built, in a dream, a Palace, a castle or some caves—I cannot express it to you well. But it was so pretty, so picturesque, that ten years later, it remained etched in my memory, and I have never been able to uproot it.

I myself too considered that I was crazed, a madman. I was not a mason—I had never touched a trowel. A sculptor who did not know a chisel. As for architecture, I shall not speak of it—I had never studied it. I never spoke of my dream to anyone, for fear of being ridiculed, and I thought I was just as ridiculous myself.

It was after fifteen years, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I thought about it the least, that my foot made me recall it.

My foot bumped against an obstacle that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was. It was a stone of a shape so strange that I put it in my pocket, to admire it at leisure. The following day, I passed by the same place and found other, even prettier, ones. I gathered them there and was delighted.

The stone was a piece of molasse, worked by water and hardened by the force of time, hard as a pebble. It exhibited a sculpture so strange that it would be impossible for man to imitate it. It represented all species of animals, all species of caricatures.

I said to myself: since nature wishes to make the sculpture, me, I should do the masonry and the architecture.

Here is my dream. To work, I said to myself.

From that day on, I wandered ravines, hillsides, the most arid of places. I also found tufa, petrified by water, which was equally marvelous. I began carting the stones in my pocket handkerchief. The tufa being sharp, within a few days, I had a dozen handkerchiefs riddled with holes, which did not overly please my wife. That was when my disappointments began. I transported basketfuls. I will also mention to you that my postman’s route was over 30 kilometers2 per day and that I covered dozens of those kilometers, my basket filled with stones on my back, which represented forty-odd kilograms each time. I should also mention to you that each town possessed its own type of stone, always very hard.

Traversing the countryside, I made little piles of these stones. In the evening, I returned with my wheelbarrow to collect them. The nearest were 4 to 5 kilometers, sometimes up to 10 kilometers, away. I left sometimes at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.

I cannot tell you all the details, the ups and downs, and the misery that I endured. They would be too many to enumerate, my limited schooling not permitting me to express myself well.

I will say to you quite simply that I carted everything myself in the manner indicated above, that, night and day, I worked for twenty-six years, with neither respite nor thanks.

The visitors who come from across the world, their numbers increasing each year, have trouble believing what their eyes see. They need the testimony of the inhabitants of the land to believe that a single man could have the courage and the will to construct such a masterpiece. They leave marveling, all of them, saying: it is incredible, it is impossible.

Here are the dimensions of my Palace:

Eastern façade ……… 26 meters in length

Western façade ………26 meters in length

Northern façade …… 14 meters in length

Southern façade ……. 10 meters in length

The northern and southern facades form a quarter of the monument, the width being, on an average, 12 meters, the height varying from 8 to 10 meters.

Between the eastern and western facades is a large gallery, 20 meters in length and 1.5 meters in width. At each of its ends is a sort of labyrinth.

To be continued in The Autobiography of Postman Cheval and a Description of the Ideal Palace, Part II

Translations of some of Cheval’s inscriptions carved on the walls of the Ideal Palace

Etched on the eastern façade:

Les minutes de loisirs
Que mon service m’a permis
J’ai bâti ce Palais
Des mille et une Nuits,
Où j’ai gravé mon souvenir.

During the sparse minutes free
To which my service gave me right,
I built this Ideal Palace
Of a Thousand and One Nights—
Herein have I engraved my memory.

Etched on the western façade:

En créant ce rocher,
J’ai voulu prouver
Ce que peut la volonté.

Possible translation (literal, unfaithful to the original rhyme scheme)

In creating this rock,
I wished to prove
What the will can do.

Another possible translation (preserving the original rhyme scheme)

In this rock’s creation,
I proffer a demonstration
Of the will’s determination.

Etched on the northern façade:

Viens admirer la nature.

O creature,
Come, admire nature.

  1. The source of the French text is Cheval, Ferdinand. “Autobiographie du Facteur Cheval et Description du Palais Idéal,” In Jean, André (editor). Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval à Hauterives (Drôme). Documents recueillis par André Jean. Montpellier: Causse, Graille & Castelnau. 1937: 7-14. ↩︎

  2. Translator’s note: I have retained the SI units in this translation. ↩︎