Writing down one's observations inevitably causes the observer to pay closer attention to the circumstances being observed, and often from this scrutiny comes a change in consciousness. Such is the simple yet powerful premise of Alba de Céspedes' novel "Forbidden Notebook," in which protagonist Valeria Cossati, a lower-middle-class housewife living in Rome after World War II, begins to do precisely that in a nondescript black diary she purchases illegally one Sunday morning at the tobacconist's.
Dutiful and self-effacing, Valeria had only intended to buy cigarettes for her husband and technically such shops are prohibited from selling stationery items on Sundays, but seeing the stack in the window, she can't help herself. "It was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong," the first sentence of this gripping slow-burn of a book declares. "But it's too late now for regrets, the damage is done."
Valeria begins hiding her prohibited acquisition in the family home in Rome, "constantly moving it around" due to having "a hard time finding a place where it wouldn't immediately be discovered," so little privacy or autonomy does she have independent of her husband and two university age children. Over the course of the brief yet increasingly intense — thanks to her intensifying perceptions — six months that we see Valeria document, she begins to realize, among other things, that "if children can confess freely that they're bored with their parents, a mother who confesses that she's bored with her children seems unnatural."
Originally published in 1952, "Forbidden Notebook" is being reissued in an English translation by Ann Goldstein, renowned translator of Elena Ferrante, and with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes that the secret journal becomes its keeper's room-of-one's own where, "in lieu of walls and a door, pen and paper will suffice to allow Valeria, albeit furtively, to speak her mind."
A Cuban-Italian feminist and bestselling author from a wealthy and diplomatically well-connected family, de Céspedes was born in 1911 and died in 1997 and led a life of art and political agitation. She was jailed in 1935 for anti-fascist activities, and two of her other books — the 1938 novel "Nessuno Torna Indietro" or "Nobody Comes Back" and the 1940 short story collection "La Fuga" or "Fuge" — were banned. She was jailed again for her work in support of the Resistance as Clorinda, a radio personality on Radio Partigiana in Bari. After the war, she moved to Paris, where she lived until her death.
Domestic mundanity and the impulse toward freedom combine in this critique of marriage, family and fascism, as Valeria comes to see that "all life passes in the anguished attempt to draw conclusions and not succeeding."
At 43 years old and after 22 years of marriage, Valeria arrives at innumerable clear-eyed epiphanies regarding gender, class and the passage of time, many of them rather unpleasant. But one of de Céspedes' points seems to be that real liberation is never comfortable or easy — a fact which, if anything, makes that state of being all the more worth pursuing.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection "Where Are the Snows," winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize. Her fourth novel, "From Dust to Stardust," will be published in the autumn.
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