Book review: ‘The Forbidden Notebook’, 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 catches our attention: strong, clear and morally engaged.

Céspedes was born in Rome in 1911 to an Italian mother and a Cuban diplomat. Moral engagement ran her family: her paternal grandfather led the Cuban Revolution against Spain. Two of Céspedes’ earlier novels, “Nessuno Torna Indietro” (1938) and “La Fuga” (1940), were banned by the Italian government; Céspedes herself was imprisoned for anti-fascist activism.

But her 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 that women recognize as global: the suppression of their thoughts. The book is written as a diary, that paradoxical form that offers both privacy and exposure. Privacy creates honesty and the diarist can say things on paper that he would never say out loud, but transcription is itself communication, creating a text that anyone can read. The novel was translated by Ann Goldstein, who became the English voice of Elena Ferrante, with a foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri, who adopted Italian as a second language and explores the meaning of the word “forbidden”.

The main character, Valeria, wants to write down her thoughts – an act of subversion in itself. Written thoughts become real. The act of reporting creates a distance between the writer and the observed, and the diary writer becomes a kind of mole, reporting both to those around him and to himself. The result is a layered construction of consciousness, reflection and understanding.

Valeria bought the notebook impulsively – on Sunday, when sales were illegal. She hid it under her coat. This illicit transaction, in which duplicity is used in the service of honesty, is the foundation of her enterprise: recording her story.

Valeria is 43 years old, happily married to Michele. Their children, Riccardo and Mirella, are students and live at home. Post-war Italy is poor, but Michele has a good job at a bank and Valeria, unusually for her generation, also has a good office job. He also runs the household — cooks, cleans, buys and repairs.

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Privacy allows her to think for herself, but Valeria does not dare to write for two weeks, because she is never alone. She eventually buys three tickets to a soccer game, pretending they are from her boss, and sends her family to watch the game. Seeing them leave, she is aware of what she started: “They were already far away and it seemed to me that they were running towards a dangerous trap that I had set, not towards a harmless football game.”

Valeria wants to hide the notebook, but the family apartment is small, and every wardrobe and closet is a common space. When she mentions that the kids locked the drawers and that she’d like 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 “gently, ‘Tell me, what do you want to write in your diary?’” Valeria begins to cry. She cannot stand up to a family that will deny the thought of her existence as a separate person, an intellect, with scorn, tenderness and contempt.

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

This question is not new; Virginia Woolf famously announced the need for a room of one’s own; likewise 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 fundamental to feminist writers. Céspedes explores the subject in a new setting.

Valeria is immersed in family problems. Mirella is 20 years old, diligently studying law, but with an unknown, older boyfriend. Valeria, fearing that she will be morally compromised, tries to end the relationship. But Mirella is cold and reserved, standing up to her mother in a way Valeria couldn’t have imagined at her age. Riccardo is a mediocre student with a banal girlfriend; wants to emigrate to Buenos Aires. Neither child seems to be aware of the efforts their parents have made to achieve their tenuous financial stability. Michele is gentle with Valeria but distant, bored with his job and excited by the prospect of a new career. They rarely talk. Valeria feels suffocated and finds peace only in her office. She goes there one Saturday, when it is closed, and unexpectedly finds her boss. The two begin a relationship quite different from the one she shares with Michele.

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The tensions within the family develop in evocative vignettes. Riccardo asks to borrow his father’s tuxedo for a party; they can’t afford to buy him their own. But he is too fat to carry it and, humiliated, he mocks his father. “‘Daddy has narrow shoulders,’ he said gruffly.'” Valeria is having lunch with old school friends who are rich and brag about how they cheated on their husbands. Valeria plans an elaborate birthday tea for Mirella, who declines the offer. Each of these events is shown in detail: adult children, a cramped apartment, a clash of generations. The parents lived through the war, the children barely remember it. Valeria visits her mother, who sits in judgmental silence, crocheting placemats, placemats and placemats. Valeria doesn’t use these things – her generation doesn’t – but her mother never stops making them, or condemning them.

Family dominates this tense, powerful novel, which captures the terrifying power this collective has over the individual. Valeria, who learns more about herself and her family with each passing chapter, cannot overcome the force that overwhelms her life.

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The voice of Céspedes, who died in 1997, is reminiscent of that of Natalia Ginzburg and Elena Ferrante, other Italian writers who created tense stories from the everyday and the domestic. These women depict dramas that unfold in the kitchen, bedroom, car journey, mealtime, with every overheard conversation. The family is a pot. This is where our greatest love and trust begins, but also our greatest fear and anger. In Céspedes’ book, the family is unsurpassed. Her story is one that no one can look away from, told in words that echo in the mind. The question about a woman’s right to her own thoughts is answered with a chilling resolution.

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

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

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