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

By the 1950s, she was known throughout Italy. For years she wrote a popular advice column, tackling questions about marriage, infidelity and love with meditations on art and philosophy. These columns steered readers toward a modern, more secular morality, one that stressed women’s equality. Her private life was the stuff of rumors — according to one she’d been married to a count as a teenager but had the marriage annulled. Which makes her virtual disappearance from the literary record today all the harder to fathom.

Until recently, it’s been difficult to find her work, even in Italian. De Céspedes has been dismissed as a “romance writer,” perhaps owing to her subject and primary readership (women), her gender or all three.

The Italian publisher Mondadori reissued some of her books over the past few years, and this fresh translation of “Forbidden Notebook” promises a new cohort of readers, appetites whetted by the works of Elena Ferrante, Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg. Ann Goldstein, who translates Ferrante’s writing and has a particular skill for conveying the full power of a woman’s emotional register, for locating an undertow of wrath or grief even in stated ambivalence, has reinvigorated the text, starting with the title: A 1958 English edition was called, rather flatly, “The Secret.” Still, The New York Times’s reviewer called de Céspedes “one of the few distinguished women writers since Colette to grapple effectively with what it is to be a woman.”

De Céspedes found a lifetime of work in the question. After World War II ended, she returned to Rome and edited a literary journal, Mercurio, that published such writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Alberto Moravia. In its final issue, which appeared in 1948, she published an essay by Natalia Ginzburg called “On Women,” which explored whether women — with an innate tendency toward melancholy and despair — could ever achieve true freedom.

“I, too, like you and like all women, have a great and ancient experience with wells: I often fall in and I fall in with a crash,” de Céspedes wrote privately to Ginzburg. “But — unlike you — I think that these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall in the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men — who never fall into the well — will never understand.”

In “Forbidden Notebook,” Valeria, too, finds comfort at the bottom of the well. Conflicts with Mirella often send her there, bitter fights about sexual propriety and autonomy that turn on existential, generational concerns. “If you love me, how can you hope I’ll have a life like yours?” Mirella asks.

Mirella sees poverty and exhaustion, but Valeria knows there’s more. As responsibilities — to her office, her family, the household — whirl around her, they also give her the cover she needs to burrow into herself. It’s intoxicating to look deeply within, even if she wounds herself in the process of discovery. “Something seems to have changed even in my physical appearance: I look younger, I would say,” Valeria writes, a few months in. “Yesterday I locked the bedroom door and looked at myself in the mirror. I haven’t done that for ages, because I’m always in a hurry. And yet now I find time to look at myself, to write in my diary. I wonder how it is that before I couldn’t.”

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