Book Review: ‘Forbidden Notebook,’ by Alba de Céspedes


“I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong,” declares Valeria Cossati at the start of Alba de Céspedes’s brilliant 1952 novel, “Forbidden Notebook.” The voice seizes our attention at once: forceful, clear and morally engaged.

Céspedes was born in Rome in 1911 to an Italian mother and a Cuban diplomat. Moral engagement ran in her family: Her paternal grandfather led Cuba’s revolution against Spain. Two of Céspedes’s 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 “Forbidden Notebook,” now in a new English translation, isn’t about Italian fascism. It’s political in a wider 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 produces candor, and the diarist may say things on paper she would never say aloud, but transcription itself is communication, creating 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 main character, Valeria, wants to set down her thoughts — itself an act of subversion. Written thoughts become real. The act of reporting creates distance between the writer and the observed, 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 impulsively — 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 venture: setting down her story.

Valeria is 43, happily married to Michele. Their children, Riccardo and Mirella, are university students living at home. Postwar Italy is poor, but Michele has a good job in a bank, and Valeria, unusually for her generation, also has a good office job. She runs the household, too — cooking, cleaning, shopping and mending.

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Privacy allows one to think for oneself, but for two weeks Valeria daren’t write, because she is never alone. Finally she buys three tickets for a soccer match, pretending they come from her boss, and sends her family to watch the game. Seeing them go, she is aware of what she has started: “They were already distant, and it seemed to me that they were running toward a dangerous trap I’d set rather than an innocuous soccer game.”

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

Everyone laughs at the idea. Riccardo takes hold of Valeria’s chin and asks “tenderly, ‘Tell me, what do you want to write in your diary?’” Valeria begins to cry. She can’t hold out against the family, which will use mockery, tenderness and contempt to deny the idea of her existence as a separate person, an intellect.

And here is the question at the core of the book: Should a woman be permitted to take her own thoughts seriously? Or is the very idea transgressive, forbidden?

This question isn’t 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 fundamental to feminist writers. Céspedes explores the subject in a new setting.

Valeria is immersed in family issues. Mirella is 20, diligently studying law, but she has an unknown, older boyfriend. Valeria, afraid she’ll be morally compromised, tries to end the relationship. But Mirella is cool and aloof, opposing her mother in a way Valeria could never have imagined at her age. Riccardo is a mediocre student with a banal 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 affectionate to Valeria but remote, bored by his job and excited by the possibility of a new career. They talk rarely. Valeria feels stifled and finds tranquility only at her office. She goes there one Saturday, when it’s closed, and unexpectedly finds her boss. The two of them begin a relationship quite different from the one she shares with Michele.

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The 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 own. But he’s too plump to wear it, and, humiliated, he mocks his father. “‘Papa has narrow shoulders,’ he said rudely.’” Valeria has lunch with old school friends who are wealthy and who boast about their deceptions of their husbands. Valeria plans an elaborate birthday tea for Mirella, who spurns the offer. Each of these incidents is set out in vivid detail: the grown children, the cramped apartment, the conflict between the generations. The parents struggled through the war, the children barely remember it. Valeria visits her mother, who sits in judgmental silence, crocheting doilies and coasters and place mats. Valeria doesn’t use these things — her generation doesn’t — but her mother never stops making them, nor judging.

The family dominates this fraught, powerful novel, which chronicles the frightening potency wielded by this collective over the individual. Valeria, who learns more about herself, and her family, with each passage she sets down, cannot overcome the juggernaut that overwhelms her life.

The violation of Elena Ferrante

The voice of Céspedes, who died in 1997, recalls those of Natalia Ginzburg and Elena Ferrante, other Italian writers who created electrifying narratives from the mundane and the domestic. These women present the dramas that take place in the kitchen, the bedroom, the car trip, at meals, with each overheard conversation. The family is the crucible. It is where our greatest love and trust begin, and also our greatest fear and rage. In Céspedes’s book, the family is insuperable. Her story is one from which no one may look away, told in words that stay ringing 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 collections of short stories and a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her most recent 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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