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The Transgressive Power of Alba de Céspedes

Rome, 1950: The diary begins innocently enough, with the name of its owner, Valeria Cossati, written in a neat script.

Valeria is buying cigarettes for her husband when she is entranced by the stacks of gleaming black notebooks at the tobacco shop. She’s not permitted to buy one there on Sundays, she’s told, but the tobacconist gives her one anyway, which she stashes under her coat. She doesn’t yet know there’s a devil hiding in its pages.

This deception begins the Cuban-Italian writer Alba de Céspedes’s novel FORBIDDEN NOTEBOOK (Astra House, 259 pp., $26), first published in 1952. Valeria is married with two adult children; the family is under financial strain, compelling her to work in an office and manage her household without the help of a maid. She has coped with these pressures handsomely, she believes. She is a “transparent” woman, simple, “a person who had no surprises either for myself or for others.”

But from the moment Valeria brings the diary into her home, it changes her. She is terrified by the thought that her family might discover it, especially after they mock her for the mere suggestion she might like to keep a journal. “What would you write, mamma?” her husband, Michele, teases.

“Maybe I wanted this notebook in order to tell the tranquil story of our family: Maybe that’s what impelled me to buy it,” Valeria writes. “Instead, since I began writing, not everything that happens in our house seems to me pleasant to recall. … Sometimes I think I’m wrong to write down everything that happens; fixed in writing, even what is, in essence, not bad seems bad.”

What might have been a family story, with all its betrayals and unhappy detours forgotten, becomes an excruciating study of the diarist herself. The written record of Valeria’s feelings and observations makes it impossible for her to ignore her discontent: the chill she feels in her marriage, her warring impulses toward her children, the guilt and pleasure she finds in her work. Yet no transgression or admission feels as central as the fact of the diary — “an evil spirit,” she thinks. In the notebook she is simply Valeria; to her children and husband she is “mamma,” and her parents still call her, at age 43, “Bebe.”

Nowhere in the small apartment is safe from intrusion, driving her to move the diary from the linen closet to a suitcase to a heap of rags. Even her daughter, Mirella, who is studying law, has a drawer all to herself, and it locks.

Alba de Céspedes y Bertini (1911-97) was born in Rome, the daughter of a Cuban diplomat and his Italian wife. Her grandfather helped lead Cuba’s fight for independence and served as its first president, and she kept alive her family’s political commitment, often running afoul of Italy’s Fascist regime.

The government banned two of her novels, including “Nessuno Torna Indietro,” or “There’s No Turning Back,” which, published in 1938, became a best seller and was translated widely. De Céspedes was imprisoned twice for anti-Fascist activities, first in 1935 and again in 1943, after she had joined a resistance radio program, broadcasting from Bari under the pseudonym Clorinda.

By the 1950s, she was known throughout Italy. For years she wrote a popular advice column, tackling questions about marriage, infidelity and love with meditations on art and philosophy. These columns steered readers toward a modern, more secular morality, one that stressed women’s equality. Her private life was the stuff of rumors — according to one she’d been married to a count as a teenager but had the marriage annulled. Which makes her virtual disappearance from the literary record today all the harder to fathom.

Until recently, it’s been difficult to find her work, even in Italian. De Céspedes has been dismissed as a “romance writer,” perhaps owing to her subject and primary readership (women), her gender or all three.

The Italian publisher Mondadori reissued some of her books over the past few years, and this fresh translation of “Forbidden Notebook” promises a new cohort of readers, appetites whetted by the works of Elena Ferrante, Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg. Ann Goldstein, who translates Ferrante’s writing and has a particular skill for conveying the full power of a woman’s emotional register, for locating an undertow of wrath or grief even in stated ambivalence, has reinvigorated the text, starting with the title: A 1958 English edition was called, rather flatly, “The Secret.” Still, The New York Times’s reviewer called de Céspedes “one of the few distinguished women writers since Colette to grapple effectively with what it is to be a woman.”

De Céspedes found a lifetime of work in the question. After World War II ended, she returned to Rome and edited a literary journal, Mercurio, that published such writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Alberto Moravia. In its final issue, which appeared in 1948, she published an essay by Natalia Ginzburg called “On Women,” which explored whether women — with an innate tendency toward melancholy and despair — could ever achieve true freedom.

“I, too, like you and like all women, have a great and ancient experience with wells: I often fall in and I fall in with a crash,” de Céspedes wrote privately to Ginzburg. “But — unlike you — I think that these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall in the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men — who never fall into the well — will never understand.”

In “Forbidden Notebook,” Valeria, too, finds comfort at the bottom of the well. Conflicts with Mirella often send her there, bitter fights about sexual propriety and autonomy that turn on existential, generational concerns. “If you love me, how can you hope I’ll have a life like yours?” Mirella asks.

Mirella sees poverty and exhaustion, but Valeria knows there’s more. As responsibilities — to her office, her family, the household — whirl around her, they also give her the cover she needs to burrow into herself. It’s intoxicating to look deeply within, even if she wounds herself in the process of discovery. “Something seems to have changed even in my physical appearance: I look younger, I would say,” Valeria writes, a few months in. “Yesterday I locked the bedroom door and looked at myself in the mirror. I haven’t done that for ages, because I’m always in a hurry. And yet now I find time to look at myself, to write in my diary. I wonder how it is that before I couldn’t.”

Before Valeria’s story was published as a novel, it was serialized in a magazine, La Settimana Incom Illustrata, with the diary entries appearing more or less in real time, from December 1950 through June 1951. I don’t know whether de Céspedes intended from the beginning for the narrative to coalesce into a novel, but I like to imagine the thrill of encountering Valeria’s story in its initial form, a prolonged confession seducing readers week after week. “I try to widen a problem so it becomes everyone’s,” de Céspedes once said of her writing. There might be notebooks darkly glimmering at the bottom of the laundry basket in your own home; your own mamma might be undergoing her own fission.

Again and again Valeria swears to destroy the journal, but the fate of the notebook matters little. She can’t excise the knowledge she’s obtained. “I know that my reactions to the facts I write down in detail lead me to know myself more intimately every day,” Valeria writes. “The better I know myself, the more lost I become. Besides, I don’t know what feelings could stand up to a ruthless, continuous analysis; or who among us, reflected in every action, could be satisfied with ourselves.”

And as she imagines the end to her diary, she recognizes, even hopes, that someone might perceive the change she’s undergone; even if she burns the notebook, as she fantasizes, someone might still smell the smoke. Traces of the odor linger in the air, 70 years on.


Joumana Khatib is an editor at the Book Review.

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