A Woman’s Diary: “Forbidden Notebook,” by Alba De Céspedes

Forbidden Notebook, a layered, hyperrealistic novel by the Cuban-Italian writer, Alba De Céspedes, takes the form of a woman’s diary. Published in 1952, it is newly-translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, best-known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s superb novels.  Every sentence in Forbidden Notebook is spare and graceful, but the narrative itself is torturous and depressed. The narrator struggles to evade knowledge of her desolation even as the emotions pour out on the page.

The diary itself is purchased on impulse. One day the perennially-exhausted narrator, Valeria, is at the tobacconist’s buying cigarettes for her husband when she decides to buy a shiny black notebook.  Her daughter writes a diary, and Valeria decides to begin one.  

Valeria realizes she must hide the notebook- to tell the truth about herself is forbidden. But she has no hiding place: her daughter hides hers in the only locked drawer in the apartment.

The diary is an odyssey into her feelings. Valeria has never had time to think:  she works at an office and spends the rest of her time shopping and doing the housework.  Her family does not appreciate her efforts:  her husband, Michele, lounges around listening to Wagner, and her adult children, Riccardo and Mirella, have an active social life. Valeria seethes with fury about her children’s bad choices:  the brilliant, studious Mirella is secretly dating a 35-year-old married lawyer, while Riccardo studies less than he should and dates an unintelligent teenager.

Writing becomes Valeria’s secret vice. She stays up late, sometimes till 3 a.m. so she can write.  She realizes that the “effort to forget myself  for 20 years has been in vain.”  And as she describes her problems and misery, we are distressed and even shocked:  Valeria is a slave. The family had enough money before the war, but the economy is bad now and they barely get by. Valeria manages the household. 

Valeria has no privacy. One thinks of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  If anyone needs a room, it is Valeria.  They do not even have a living room in their cramped, cheerless apartment: it was converted into a bedroom.

Finally she cannot bear the lack of privacy. She takes her diary to the office on Saturday, but her boss interrupts, because he, too, needs time away from his family.  And then a romantic relationship begins.  Finally she seems happy. 

But Valeria constantly feels guilty, because the family is splintered. “Today was torturous,” she writes when her son makes a life-changing mistake.  She begins to respect her daughter, but also resents her opportunities.

Her husband, Michele, is completely self-centered:   he hates his job at the bank, but feels entitled to his time off and is oblivious to Valeria’s feelings.   

Valeria writes,

The need to earn money, to read the newspaper to follow  political events, gives him the privilege of isolating himself, protecting himself; whereas my job is to be devastated.  Because when I write in the notebook, I feel I’m committing a serious sin, a sacrilege:  it’s as if I were talking to the devil.

 The strict socialization of woman as helpmeet has quelled Valeria’s sense of autonomy.  The role of women is changing for her daughter’s generation, and Valeria is half-pleased, half-jealous.

Valeria’s forbidden notebook is is brilliant, but tragic. Wait till you’re in a good mood: it is a sad, depressing read.

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