Review of Forbidden Notebook by Cuban-Italian author Alba de Cespedes, translated by Ann Goldstein

The social ties that limit female autonomy and intellect are at the core of this 1952 novel

Updated - April 28, 2023 11:20 am IST

Published - April 28, 2023 09:30 am IST

Alba de Cespedes wrote at a politically volatile time and two of her novels were banned by fascists.

Alba de Cespedes wrote at a politically volatile time and two of her novels were banned by fascists. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It is December 1950, Rome. Italy is still recovering from the devastations of World War II and two decades of fascism. Valeria Cossati, a 43-year-old mother of two grown-up children, steps out from her tiny apartment one Sunday morning to buy cigarettes for her husband. 

As she awaits her turn at the tobacconist, her eyes are drawn to a stack of notebooks in the window — “black, shiny, thick”. She wants to buy one. But the shopkeeper tells her he can’t sell it to her as it’s “forbidden”. Back then, Italy had a law that limited these shops to selling only tobacco on Sundays so that stationery shops were protected from unfair competition. But Valeria insists, and the shopkeeper gives in, instructing her, “Hide it under your coat.” 

Valeria keeps the notebook under her coat all the way home. This seemingly innocuous, mundane transaction — the purchase of a notebook — becomes the destabilising spark that sets alight an incendiary journey towards self-knowledge in Alba de Cespedes’s extraordinary novel.

Valeria’s diary entries first appeared in a magazine from December 1950 to June 1951, with the events described supposedly taking place in ‘real time’. The serialised novel attracted new readers week after week, leading to its publication in book form in 1952. De Cespedes (1911-1997), a Cuban-Italian writer, was the daughter of the Cuban ambassador to Italy and granddaughter of a revolutionary hero who inspired Cuba’s first war for independence from Spain.

Jailed for working with a Resistance radio station

Shaped by her family’s radical legacy, and writing at a time of tectonic changes, de Cespedes’s literary consciousness is deeply political. Two of her novels were banned by the fascists and she was sent to jail in 1943 for working with a Resistance radio station.

Alba De Cespedes in the 1970s.

Alba De Cespedes in the 1970s. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

However, the political interrogation one encounters in the diary entries of Forbidden Notebook has very little to do with the grand march of history. Far more intimate, it concerns womanhood, family, sexuality, friendship, the bourgeois values of respectability and sacrifice, relations between mother and daughter, husband and wife, brother and sister, and most of all, the warring factions of one’s own divided self.

This is a division that’s ever present but in a repressed state, making the little lies and hypocrisies of family life easier to execute as well as endure. But the very act of starting a diary thrusts Valeria down a path of self-scrutiny from which there is no turning back, and the fabric of her domestic life begins to fray. 

Even the idea that she, a woman and a mother, might want to keep a diary is a matter of ridicule to her family. Valeria’s biggest fear from the moment she acquires the notebook is that it might be discovered. As she moves through her flat seeking the perfect place to hide it, it dawns on her that “in the entire house, I no longer had a drawer, or any storage space, that was still mine”. She keeps shifting the diary’s hiding place — from a ragbag to a biscuit tin to an old trunk — but her anxiety, instead of abating, turns all-consuming, making her curse the notebook even as she finds its lure irresistible.

Intimate portrait of a woman

Although her family is conventionally middle-class — her husband Michele works in a bank, she works in an office to supplement their income — money is never enough, nor is space, in their tiny apartment. Having ‘sacrificed’ 20 years of her life to her family — raising her children and running the home without a maid — just the process of documenting her daily exchanges with the people in her life makes her question whether any of them actually see her as a living woman.

Or is she, for her son, daughter and husband just ‘Mamma’ — a portrait poured into an ancient mould and frozen permanently, like those of her dead ancestors that hang on the walls of her parents’ house? 

The diary, as Jhumpa Lahiri writes in the introduction to this English translation, is “both an object and a place”. As an object, it has an owner to whom it belongs exclusively, and as a place, it grants access to the sort of political (if not physical) space where a woman can speak her mind without fear of consequences. And, as we read Valeria’s notebook, it becomes clear that the eponymous ‘forbidden’ refers not merely to the legal interdiction but also, and more so, to the social interdiction against an autonomous female intellect.

Though popular in her time, de Cespedes has been a marginal figure in the Italian canon. There was a ripple of interest around her when Elena Ferrante, in an interview, mentioned a novel of de Cespedes as one of the books that “keep me company” as “books of encouragement”. There is clearly an elective affinity between the two, and this latest offering from Ann Goldstein, celebrated for her translations of Ferrante, will certainly be relished by the latter’s fans all over the world.

Forbidden Notebook
Alba de Cespedes, trs Ann Goldstein
Astra House

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