Published in Italy in 1952 and freshly translated here by Ann Goldstein, Forbidden Notebook is a remarkable rediscovered gem of Italian literature, a candid, exquisitely-written confessional from an evocative feminist voice. Its author, Alba de Céspedes, was a bestselling novelist, poet and screenwriter of Italian-Cuban heritage. The granddaughter of the first president of Cuba, de Céspedes was born and raised in Rome. While working as a journalist in the 1930s, she was politically active, lending her support to anti-fascist activities for which she was imprisoned twice. Her writing, however, seems more concerned with the inner lives of women, their deepest feelings and desires, their preoccupations and discontents – topics that remain acutely relevant to this day.
The novel is narrated by forty-three-year-old Valeria Cossati, who experiences an irresistible urge to purchase a black notebook while buying cigarettes for her husband, Michele, one Sunday morning. Although the tobacconist is not permitted to sell such items on a Sunday, he does so in response to Valeria’s pleas – and this small act of rebellion sets the novel’s subversive tone from the opening scene.
Over the next six months, Valeria documents her inner thoughts in the notebook with great candour and clarity, laying bare the nature of her world with all its preoccupations. The act of writing becomes a confessional of sorts, an outlet for Valeria’s frustrations with her family – her husband Michele, a somewhat remote but dedicated man, largely wrapped up in his own interests, which Valeria doesn’t share, and their two grown-up children, Riccardo and Mirella, both of whom live at home.
At first, Valeria writes primarily about her children and the tensions in the relationships between the generations. At nineteen, Mirella is self-assured and growing in independence. Her older boyfriend, Cantoni – a successful lawyer – buys her expensive gifts, items that Valeria could never afford for Mirella. In a desire to protect her family’s reputation, Valeria repeatedly clashes with Mirella, urging her not to stay out late or to jeopardise her studies in law to spend time with this man. In short, Valeria struggles to understand her daughter’s values and priorities, capturing her concerns in the private notebook.
Sometimes I think I’m wrong to write down everything that happens; fixed in writing, even what is, in essence, not bad seems bad. I was wrong to write about the conversation I had with Mirella when she came home late and, after talking for a long time, we separated not as mother and daughter, but as two hostile women. If I hadn’t written it, I would have forgotten about it. (pp. 46–47)
Although Michele has a steady job with the bank, money is tight within the Cossati family, leaving little room for luxuries or new clothes. To supplement her husband’s income, Valeria works in an office – a responsible job that her old-fashioned mother frowns upon and belittles. This role, alongside all her domestic chores, leaves Valeria with virtually no time to herself. She must snatch precious moments here and there, often staying up late at night to document her thoughts in secret. In short, Valeria lives in constant fear that her notebook will be discovered, exposing her innermost feelings and transgressions. This relationship between secrecy and the risk of exposure invests the novel with a sense of tension as the narrative unfolds. Nevertheless, Valeria feels compelled to maintain the notebook, almost as a way of writing herself into existence.
As the diary entries build up, we see how Valeria has been defined by the familial roles assigned to her. In the eyes of her family, Valeria is seen purely as a daughter, a wife and a mother rather than an individual in her own right – even Michele calls her ‘Mamma’, never ‘Valeria’. More galling still is the implicit assumption that Valeria will simply stay at home to look after the baby when Riccardo’s insipid fiancé, Marina, falls pregnant – with absolutely no regard for Valeria’s own wishes or ambitions. In short, her identity has been subsumed by the family’s requirements – the very thought that she might want a life or some privacy of her own is mocked by those around her, cruelly devaluing her existence outside the domestic sphere.
Gradually the focus of the notebook entries shifts, illuminating Valeria’s frustrations with Michele. There is a realisation that she and Michele are no longer the people they once were when they first met. The nature of their relationship has changed over time, with intimacy giving way to familiarity and domesticity – the regular routines of day-to-day family life.
I wonder if, now, I’d know how to talk to him, tell him the many things I think about. Things that are mine and not ours, as at the time of our marriage, and that we’ve pretended, with our silence, still are. Often, in other words, I wonder what the relations between Michele and me have been for years. (p. 201)
Moreover, Valeria begins to question her own moral values – the codes she learned from childhood and the cues signalled by her husband. There’s an acute sense of destabilisation here, a kind of loosening or unmooring of the foundations of her world.
I’ve never had my own ideas; up till now I’ve leaned on a morality learned as a child or on what my husband said. I no longer seem to know where good is and where evil is, I no longer understand those around me, and so what I thought was solid in me loses substance as well. (p. 153)
With no room of her own at home, Valeria finds sanctuary at the office, going there on Saturday afternoons as an escape from her family. During these visits, she encounters her boss, a gentle, attentive man who is equally constrained by the demands of life at home. As her relationship with this soulmate deepens in intimacy, Valeria must decide where her loyalties lie – to her family and their endless requirements or to her own yearnings and desires…
Every time I open this notebook the anxieties I felt when I began to write in it return to mind. I was assailed by regrets that poisoned my day. I was always afraid that the notebook would be discovered, even if at the time it contained nothing that could be considered shameful. But now it’s different. In it I’ve recorded the chronicle of these last days, the way in which I’ve gradually let myself be drawn into acts that I condemn and yet which, like this notebook, I seem unable to do without. (p. 189)
In short, while Valeria experiences a gradual reawakening of her own yearnings, she is also consumed by guilt – torn between a compulsion to capture her deepest desires in the notebook and a fear of undermining everything she has built with Michele and the children over the past twenty years.
So, to summarise, Forbidden Notebook is a startling, exquisitely-written confessional – an illuminating exploration of a woman’s right to her own existence in the face of competing demands. It’s also a fascinating insight into women’s lives in post-war Italian society as the traditional gender roles of the past were being challenged by the desires for freedom and modernity. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is just how candid and honest it feels, especially for a book first published in the 1950s. There’s an emotional richness to Valeria’s diary entries, an openness and truthfulness that will likely resonate with many readers, especially fans of Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Maria Ortese and Elena Ferrante.
As you’ve probable gathered by now, I absolutely adored this one and look forward to reading more by Alba de Céspedes in the future. Luckily, Pushkin Press plan to reissue another couple of her books over the next year or two, which is excellent news for lovers of women writers. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)
Sounds truly important, Jacqui, and thank you also to Pushkin Press for knowing how to back the timeless winners. Loved reading this review.
Thanks, Jennifer. I’m glad you enjoyed my review!
Wonderful review Jacqui, so succinctly put. I’ve just read this and found it utterly compelling and transgressive in that ironic way of it being a woman coming to know herself on the page, being so conditioned on the outside, it’s as if she begins to develop a double personality, which in fact she does, and would likely have run the risk of being incarcerated if her mental health was unable to maintain the external illusion of everything being normal and proper. Such a brilliant depiction of the disassociation of wifedom and the modernity of her being a working woman post marriage.
Thanks, Claire! I’ll be heading over to yours shortly to read your review of this as I’d been holding off until my own went up! Love the way you describe the sense of Valeria developing a double personality. Yes, that’s it exactly! The deep inner life diverging from the socially acceptable exterior, i.e. the role she is expected to fulfil for Michele and the family. Have you read Evan S. Connell’s novella Mrs Bridge, a brilliant depiction of an American housewife’s inner life in the mid-20th century? I couldn’t help but be reminded of it as I was reading Forbidden Notebook.
That emergence of her inner self and the continuation of her conditioned self was perplexing to begin with, until we realise how gradual (if ever) the masked, conditioned self is unravelled. I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a depiction as this, the rigorous honesty about her own deception, her own hypocrisy. I don’t know Mrs Bridge, thanks for the reference I’ll look it up.
Very excited to read more of Alba de Céspedes, to have encountered this voice in translation, she’s an intriguing character.
Yes, I’m really looking forward to reading more of her fiction, so it’s great to know there’s more in the pipeline from Pushkin Press.
Yes, I wondered how this might compare to Natalia Ginzburg. Sounds wonderful!
Yes, I think they’re both exploring similar territory with each writer bringing their own particular viewpoint and style.
It’s surprising that this has taken so long to be translated, but great that it has been. It sounds very powerful with such a clear direct voice.
I think there may have been an earlier translation many years ago (I’ll have to check), but Ann Goldstein’s version is very recent. Maybe Daunt’s success with those Natalia Ginzburg reissues has paved the way for the revival of other Italian feminist writers. And the link to Ferrante, of course (also translated by Goldstein)!
I wonder how this was received in Italy when it was first published. I suspect the experience of the narrator is not so very different from a British 1950s counterpart.
I suspect it was seen as quite radical and transgressive at that time, especially given Italy’s Catholic culture and the focus on family values.
Ok so you can buy cigarettes but not a notebook on Sunday?
I think it was a restriction to prevent stationary shops (which couldn’t open on Sundays) from losing trade to tobacconists on those days. So, the tobacconist could sell cigarettes and tobacco on a Sunday, but not stationary or other similar items.
Sounds like Utah
Haha! I can imagine…
Great review as always, Jacquiwine! I’ve been interested in this one since I read a NYT review in mid-January. The Times, which was similarly enthused about the novel, stated that until “recently” de Céspedes work was difficult to find, even in Italian. Seems strange, doesn’t it, given her obvious talent? The review noted that de Céspedes had been dismissed as a “romance” writer; as such, work by a woman, about women and read by women could be the reason for this. It’s nice to know that more translations of her work are on the way!
Gosh, I’m surprised to hear that she’d fallen out of print (or become very difficult to get hold of) in her native language given the quality of the writing here. Still, similar fates have befallen many other excellent women writers across the world, so maybe it’s not so unusual after all…
This pigeonholing/trivialising of woman writers as being primarily concerned with romantic relationships or the domestic sphere really annoys me. When critically-acclaimed male writers (e.g. Richard Ford, Colm Toibin, Jonathan Franzen etc.) write about relationships, they’re often praised for their profound insights into the human condition, whereas women writers (e.g. Elizabeth Strout, Tessa Hadley) working in a similar territory can be criticised for focusing purely on small-scale ‘domestic’ matters. It’s so infuriating when this happens! I think the situation has improved in recent years, but there’s more to do to tackle these stereotypical perceptions and dismissive attitudes across the broader readership.
Lovely review as always Jacqui, and this sounds like an excellent book. The restrictions around her seem shocking at first until you remember time and place; in a very Catholic country in that period women were simply seen in relation to men and in a family situation, I suppose. So glad she’s been rediscovered!
Yes, even though religion isn’t mentioned in the novel, Italy’s Catholic culture must have played a significant role in shaping society’s expectations of women’s priorities at that time. For instance, I know just how shocking this narrative would have been if it had been set in Ireland (which I’m familiar with through my mum’s side of the family). Anyway, as you say, it’s terrific to see it being republished now. A truly tremendous rediscovery on the part of Pushkin Press, and I’m excited by the prospect of more!
I read this book earlier this year, and was also very moved by Valeria’s story. The sadness of her not even having a little cubbyhole she can tuck away the notebook if she wants to, the worry over it, and the feelings that are opened up when she puts them down are beautifully told. It’s not surprising to find out de Céspedes was a diary writer herself. It is as you say, exquisitely written and I felt Goldstein’s translation was especially well done. Glad to hear there are more of her books on the way.
Yes, the constant churn of her moving the notebook from one hiding place to another, always fearing that someone in the family might discover it…that all came through so strongly. Really glad to hear you enjoyed this one too, Jule. What a brilliant rediscovery!
Its wonderful how the small presses like Daunt and Pushkin are bringing these unjustly neglected authors to light, And their books are so beautifully produced.
Yes, there really seems to be an appetite for these rediscoveries at the moment. I guess NYRB classics have been ploughing this furrow for several years, but the recent emergence of imprints such as Faber Editions, the British Library Women Writers Series, Recovered Books and Handheld Press are also giving this area another boost!
So many! It’s hard to keep up.
Powerful! And although women have made progress—I only have to look at my two adult daughters to see how this is true—there is still more to be made. A little thing I was struck by: On Sunday, it was all right to buy cigarettes but not a notebook. Goodness.
I know, it’s bizarre, right? One of the peculiarities of Sunday trading laws, I think. So, the tobacconist could sell cigarettes on a Sunday but not ‘non-tobacco’ items, such as notebooks; otherwise, stationary shops (which couldn’t open on Sundays) might lose potential business.
Brilliant, and all new to me so thanks Jacqui!
This sounds so good both Valeria and Mirella seem like fascinating characters. The mother daughter story is always appealing but the political and period backdrop with all those strange restrictions make it more so.
Yes, the tensions between Valeria and her daughter are particularly significant here, I think. And it’s galling when Michele (V’s husband) puts his wife’s feelings down to jealousy of Mirella’s youth!
Lovely review, Jacqui. This sounds like a very powerful book, very vulnerable and honest.
Thanks, Bii. Yes, very much so.
this was such a brilliant novel and i am so incredibly thrilled that we’re going to get 2 more de Cespedes books!! and their premise sounds so different to this one, too, so im excited to see what other themes and stories we get to see from her!
Absolutely! It’s really encouraging that Pushkin are investing so heavily in this author over the next couple of years. Like you, I’m excited to discover more of her work!
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