Book Review: ‘Forbidden Notebook’ by Alba de Céspedes


“I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong”, declares Valeria Cossati at the beginning of Alba de Céspedes’ brilliant 1952 novel, “The forbidden notebook”. The voice immediately captures our attention: loud, clear and morally committed.

Céspedes was born in Rome in 1911 to an Italian mother and a Cuban diplomat. His moral commitment ran in his family: his paternal grandfather led the Cuban revolution against Spain. Two of Céspedes’ first novels, “Nessuno Torna Torna” (1938) and “La Fuga” (1940), were banned by the Italian government; Céspedes herself was jailed for anti-fascist activism.

But his novel “The Forbidden Notebook”, now in a new English translation, is not about Italian fascism. It is political in a broader sense, examining a form of suppression women recognize as global: the suppression of their thoughts. The book is written like a diary, that paradoxical form that offers both privacy and visibility. Privacy breeds candor and the diarist may say things on paper that she would never say aloud, but transcription itself is communication, she creates a text that can be read by anyone. The novel is translated by Ann Goldstein, who has become the English voice of Elena Ferrante, with a foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri, who has adopted Italian as a second language and who explores the meaning of the word “forbidden”.

The protagonist, Valeria, wants to write down her thoughts, which is in itself an act of subversion. Her written thoughts become real. The act of storytelling creates a distance between the writer and the observer, and the diarist becomes a kind of mole, reporting both on those around her and on herself. The result is a layered construct of awareness, reflection and understanding.

Valeria bought the notebook on impulse, on a Sunday, when the sale was illegal. She hid it under her coat. This illicit transaction, in which duplicity is employed in the service of candor, is the foundation of her enterprise: to record her story.

Valeria is 43 years old, happily married to Michele. Their children, Riccardo and Mirella, are university students who live at home. Post-war Italy is poor, but Michele has a good bank job and Valeria, unusually for her generation, also has a good office job. She also manages the house: cooking, cleaning, shopping and mending.

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Privacy allows you to think for yourself, but for two weeks Valeria didn’t dare to write, because she’s never alone. She eventually buys three tickets to a soccer game, pretending they’re from her boss, and she sends her family to see the game. Seeing them go, she realizes what she started: “They were already far away, and it seemed to me that they were running towards a dangerous trap that I would have set rather than towards a harmless football match”.

Valeria wants to hide the notebook, but the family apartment is small and every cupboard and wardrobe is a common space. When she mentions that the kids have locked drawers and that she might want one too, Michele asks smiling, “For what?” Valeria replies: “I don’t know, to keep my personal papers… maybe a diary, like Mirella”.

Everyone laughs at the idea. Riccardo grabs Valeria’s chin and asks “tenderly: ‘Tell me, what do you want to write in your diary?’” Valeria starts crying. She cannot resist the family, who will use ridicule, tenderness and contempt to deny the idea of ​​her existence as a separate person, an intellect.

And here is the question at the heart of the book: should a woman be allowed to take her thoughts seriously? Or is the idea itself transgressive, forbidden?

This question is not new; Virginia Woolf famously declared the need for a room of one’s own; so did Alice Munro, in her story “The Office,” and Doris Lessing, in “To Room Nineteen.” A woman’s need for a safe place—a room or a notebook—in which to think is paramount to feminist writers. Céspedes explores the subject in a new setting.

Valeria is immersed in family matters. Mirella is 20 years old, diligently studying law, but has an unknown older boyfriend. Valeria, afraid of being morally compromised, tries to end the relationship. But Mirella is cold and detached, she opposes her mother in a way that she Valeria would never have imagined at her age. Riccardo is a mediocre student with an ordinary girlfriend; he wants to emigrate to Buenos Aires. Neither child seems aware of the effort their parents have made to achieve their tenuous financial stability. Michele is fond of Valeria but distant, bored with her work and excited by the possibility of a new career. They rarely talk. Valeria feels suffocated and finds tranquility only in her office. He goes there on a Saturday when she’s closed, and she unexpectedly finds her boss. The two begin a very different relationship from the one she shares with Michele.

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Tensions within the family unfold in evocative vignettes. Riccardo asks to borrow his father’s tuxedo for a party; they can’t afford to buy him his. But he is too plump to wear it and, humiliated, makes fun of his father. “‘Dad has narrow shoulders,’ he said rudely. ‘” Valeria has lunch with old school friends who are rich and brag about their deceptions to their husbands. Valeria organizes an elaborate birthday tea for Mirella, who declines the offer. Each of these incidents is described in vivid detail: the grown children, the cramped apartment, the conflict between the generations. The parents fought through the war, the children barely remember. Valeria visits her mother, who sits in judgmental silence, crocheting doilies, coasters and placemats. Valeria doesn’t use these things — her generation not hers — but her mother never stops doing them, or judging.

The family dominates this intense and powerful novel, which tells the terrifying power exerted by this collective on the individual. Valeria, who learns more about herself and her family at every turn she sets, cannot overcome the colossus that overwhelms her life.

The violation of Elena Ferrante

Céspedes’ voice, who died in 1997, recalls that of Natalia Ginzburg and Elena Ferrante, other Italian writers who created electrifying narratives from the everyday and the domestic. These women present the dramas that unfold in the kitchen, in the bedroom, during the car ride, during meals, with every conversation overheard. The family is the melting pot. This is where our greatest love and trust begins, and also our greatest fear and anger. In Céspedes’ book, the family is unsurpassed. Hers is a story from which no one can take their eyes off, told in words that resonate in the mind. The question of a woman’s right to her own thoughts is answered with chilling resolution.

Roxana Robinson is the author of 10 books: six novels, three short story collections, and a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her most recent book is “Dawson’s Fall: A Novel.”

By Alba de Cespedes. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri.

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