It all starts so simply: an unseasonably warm Sunday morning in November, errands to run, a waking family to get home to. On the first page of Alba de Céspedes’s novel “Forbidden Notebook” (Astra House)—published in 1952 and newly translated by Ann Goldstein—we meet Valeria Cossati as she strolls through the streets of Rome, feeling a “childish pleasure” that’s rare in her busy life as a wife, mother, and office worker. She stops in a tobacconist’s shop to pick up some cigarettes for her husband, Michele. Waiting in line, her eyes fall on “a stack of notebooks in the window. They were black, shiny, thick, the type used in school, in which—before even starting it—I would immediately write my name excitedly on the first page: Valeria.” She is immediately seized with the certainty that she must buy one, “impelled” by some unrecognizable craving.
What makes Valeria do it? Is it the freedom of walking down the street on a beautiful morning, mercifully alone, having bought flowers solely for her own pleasure? (The first of many shades of Virginia Woolf.) Is it the childhood recollection of writing her name on the first page and the anticipation that she might do it again, reclaiming herself as “Valeria” rather than “mamma” or “Signora Cossati” for the first time in more than twenty years? Whatever it is, the compulsion is so strong that she insists that she must have the notebook, even when the tobacconist tells her that it’s illegal for him to sell anything but cigarettes on Sunday. From the novel’s first line—“I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong”—the notebook is equally freighted with self-flagellating judgment and a burning, mysterious desire. Unbeknownst to her husband and children, Valeria begins to keep a record of her observations and feelings, first haltingly, then with increasing urgency and insight. Her practice of writing becomes one of shocking self-recognition, as she begins to reacquaint herself with the person she is—or could be—outside the restrictive role she plays in the family.
And yet the object that carries all this meaning is such a modest one: a plain composition book, like the one a schoolchild would use. The novel’s 1957 English edition—translated by Isabel Quigly and titled “The Secret”—often replaces “notebook” with “diary,” or sometimes with the more sensational “secret diary.” But Goldstein, like de Céspedes herself, uses the word “diary” only occasionally, relying most often on quaderno, or “notebook”: an unromantic, quotidian word. This makes a kind of pragmatic sense. In the novel’s breathless first pages, and throughout, Valeria is preoccupied by the problem of where to hide the book from Michele and their college-age children, Riccardo and Mirella, as she stashes it desperately in all the places that they’re least likely to investigate—the kitchen ragbag, a basket of mending, the linen cupboard—realizing that she alone has no private space in their home.
While reading a published diary, either real or fictional, it can be easy to focus on its content: a diary offers the illusion of pure internality, a glimpse directly into the writer’s soul. To this end, “Forbidden Notebook” is a tragic romance, on one level between Valeria and a potential lover, but, on a deeper level, between the persona she presents to her family, friends, and co-workers and the private self that she discovers as she writes—that is, between Valeria and the notebook itself. We can never forget, however, that Valeria’s notebook is a thing, a foreign body in the limited space afforded by her small apartment, and its thingness is an inescapable problem. Valeria’s inner life isn’t the novel’s only concern; the family’s financial struggles amid the political uncertainty of postwar Italy can never be fully eclipsed by her personal development. Much as we might long for her to run away from familial servitude, taking only her notebook and her aspirations, she’s confronted constantly by her loving but torturous family bonds, the obligations they impose upon her, and her lack of financial resources. Emotions, de Céspedes reminds us, can never be enough to overtake economic reality.
This emphasis on materiality is not the only reason that I’m so fixated on the word “notebook.” There’s also its association with the classroom, the first thing Valeria thinks of when she encounters it. It doesn’t begin as a “secret diary”; in fact, when she first sits down to write, she struggles to summon anything personal. (“I find I have nothing to say except to report on the daily struggle I endure to hide it,” she writes.) The notebook becomes a kind of exercise book, devoted to the painstaking practice of daily observation. Like the black quaderni of Valeria’s schooldays, it’s a pedagogical tool, and writing in it becomes a new education—in how to read herself and, consequently, in how to read the world.
The first lesson in Valeria’s education is realizing how far she has receded from a clear sense of herself after twenty-two years of being a wife and mother. She is so wholly contained by these roles that her family finds the idea of her keeping a diary laughable; as far as they’re concerned, she couldn’t possibly have anything to write about. When we first meet her, Valeria is complicit in this myth. One of the reasons she can’t tell anyone that she’s writing is “the regret that I spend so much time doing it. I often complain that I have too many things to do, that I’m the family servant, the household slave—that I never have a moment to read a book, for example . . . in a certain sense that servitude has also become my strength, the halo of my martyrdom.” She feels like the only adult in a world of children, both at home and with her old schoolmates, a group of women whose relative wealth and leisure—Valeria is the only one who works outside the home—mark just how much she and Michele have failed to meet their families’ prewar standard of living. Her only joy, she states with a terrible sense of false contentment, is in “tiredness.” At forty-three, she feels old, yet the act of sneaking around to write also makes her feel embarrassingly childish.
That childishness soon becomes a kind of second youth. As Valeria writes more each day, she begins to see herself as vibrant again; as her mind awakens from its self-imposed torpor, so, too, does her body awaken to the gaze of others—and her own. Although in the fall she couldn’t even allow herself to rest, or to think about what she might want or need, by the spring she has cultivated the skill of self-regard: “I find time to look at myself, to write in my diary. I wonder how it is that before I couldn’t. I looked at my face for a long time, at my eyes, and my image conveyed to me a sense of joy.” The exhaustion of sacrifice is no longer her only happiness.
This education in perception also refines Valeria’s attunement to the people who share her life. As she engages in the daily exercise of observation, she becomes both a more precise writer and a skilled, though sometimes unwilling, close reader—not of books, but of experiences. Where she used to glide through the world blithely, letting comments or minor difficulties slip away, she now finds everything dense with meaning. “Ever since I happened to start keeping a diary,” she writes, “I seem to have discovered that a word or an intonation can be just as important, or even more, than the facts we’re accustomed to consider important.” A new critical faculty emerges in her, though its presence is often unwelcome; it turns out that knowledge, when cultivated with honesty and clarity, cannot be limited to the self. Valeria soon begins to discern the many necessary elisions and assumptions that have shaped her relationships with those she loves, and realizes that none of them—Michele, or the children, or her mother—are transparent to one another, despite the smallness of the family sphere. Proximity, she realizes, cannot be confused with intimacy.
Valeria’s burgeoning ability to parse the world around her extends beyond the home, as she unwittingly begins to give voice to a whisper of political consciousness. She draws connections between her small life and the larger world, connections that Michele and her friends refuse to dwell on. Comparing her family’s economic plight with the success of their peers, she reflects, “If I think about it carefully, I sense that that happened because, during the war, some understood what was important and others didn’t.” For readers, it’s exciting to watch Valeria expand beyond the limits that constrained her, yet her own response to this understanding is troubled. “If we can learn to understand the smallest things that happen every day, then maybe we can learn to truly understand the secret meaning of life,” she writes. “But,” she continues, “I don’t know if it’s a good thing, I’m afraid not.”
This fear—of examining the life you’re trapped in too closely—begins to work its way through the book. Early on, Valeria expresses discomfort at how writing something down in the journal makes her accountable. “We’re always inclined to forget what we’ve said or done in the past, partly in order not to have the tremendous obligation to remain faithful to it,” she writes. “Otherwise, it seems to me, we would all discover that we’re full of mistakes and, above all, contradictions, between what we intended to do and what we have done, between what we would desire to be and what we are content to be.” That night, she hides the notebook with extra caution. Reading this, I felt a budding anticipation; surely our heroine would overcome this anxiety and learn to look directly at what she intends to do and what she desires. Surely she would act out the triumphant narrative of self-actualization that contemporary readers have come to demand from sympathetic but thwarted characters.
For a short time, Valeria does just this, allowing herself to wonder what it would be like to act on her fantasies. Ultimately, though, the heightened perception developed by the notebook makes any kind of life—the one she lives or the one she dreams of living—equally impossible. Looking at her husband and son, she cannot stop herself from seeing their insecurities and weaknesses. Looking at the wealthy man who would be her lover, she sees a man rendered vulnerable by his reliance upon money. Looking at her daughter, she perceives her own limitations; looking at anything, she sees so much that she wants to change, yet the hard facts of her life make change inaccessible. “All my feelings, thus dissected, rot, become poison,” she laments. “At night, when we sit at the table together, we seem transparent and loyal, without intrigues, but I know now that none of us show what we truly are, we hide, we all camouflage ourselves, out of shame or spite.” Valeria’s education in self-knowledge eventually teaches her to recognize that everyone contains their own jealously guarded hopes and motivations. The notebook, which seemed at first like her salvation, ends up being her doom. At the end, she acknowledges the notebook’s revelations but also its fatal violence, writing that “all women hide a black notebook, a forbidden diary. And they all have to destroy it.”
Alba de Céspedes lived a life quite different from Valeria’s. The granddaughter of the first president of Cuba, the daughter of an ambassador, and the wife of a diplomat, de Céspedes was born in Rome but eventually settled in Paris, and one wonders how familiar she could have been with the lives of “all women.” She was twice jailed for antifascist activities, before and during the Second World War; founded a short-lived but influential literary journal; and was a hugely successful writer of fiction, screenplays, journalism, and poetry. Yet it is the very smallness of “Forbidden Notebook” ’s scope that makes it so powerful. It was originally published as a serial in the weekly magazine La Settimana Incom Illustrata, over roughly the same six-month span in which the notebook’s entries unfold: between December, 1950, and June, 1951. Reading it, I often imagined what it would have been like to encounter these installments in real time, perhaps reading them at a kitchen table, in a cramped apartment, after the rest of the household had gone to bed—in the very same kind of moments that Valeria spends writing in the notebook. Valeria is not a writer, and her notebook is not an exercise in artistic development. She is simply a woman expressing her desperate longing to finally be seen and to see herself, and one wonders how many of her readers, then and now, have been the same. ♦