Still shocking: Alba de Céspedes’ “The Forbidden Notebook”. – Culture

In November 1950 it is in Rome still warm, almost late summer. Valeria, 43 years old, office worker, married mother of two adult children, goes for a little Sunday walk in high spirits. She wants to get cigarettes for her husband Michele so that he can find them next to his bed as soon as he wakes up, and she buys a bouquet of marigolds for herself.

Without realizing what attracts her so much about it, she has her eyes on something else in the tobacconist: a thick black exercise book. But the tobacconist doesn’t want to give it away. “It’s not possible, it’s forbidden,” he says. On Sundays he’s only allowed to sell tobacco, the police are strict. But Valeria really wants the magazine, and because nobody else is in the store at the moment, the man hands it to her across the counter: “Put it under your coat.”

So Valeria’s relationship with her future diary begins with prohibition and secrecy, and while it is not the police who forbid her to write anything in it, she feels guilty from the start. How, then, would a righteous wife and mother take her own experiences, experiences, thoughts, and feelings so seriously that she writes them down? Valeria herself seems scandalous.

Because the salary of a bank clerk is not enough for a family, Valeria has to work

So that no one catches her, she only writes at night, in a panic she keeps hiding the notebook in different places, so her family must not find it under any circumstances. Because what is gradually written down there over the next six months would irreparably destroy the image of the mother who is devotedly consuming herself in love and care for her family.

Valeria comes from an impoverished Venetian noble family that was robbed of its property by a fraudulent wealth manager. The family’s money enabled her to get a first-class education at a boarding school and then to study literature, music and art history. But she marries in her early twenties, Michele is away at war while she stays at home with her two children, Mirella and Riccardo.

Because the salary of a bank employee is not enough for a family of four, Valeria has to take a job in the office as soon as the children are older – an economic compulsion, not an act of liberation. In the meantime she has turned it into a position of trust, son and daughter are about to graduate in law. So everything could relax: the money would be enough again, and the narrow apartment would belong to Valeria and Michele alone. But of course it turns out very differently. And the pitiless sharpness with which Alba de Céspedes looks into the heart of this family soon puts an end to the myth of the adorable nature of the Italian mother.

Alba de Céspedes: The Forbidden Notebook. Novel. Translated from the Italian by Verena von Koskull. Insel, Berlin 2021. 302 pages, 24 euros.

Incidentally, this was not De Céspedes’ own story: born in 1911 into a Cuban-Italian diplomatic family, she was a writer in fascist Italy as early as 1939 with her first novel, because its female protagonist seemed inappropriate to the regime, independent and free-spirited – which is probably exactly why the book became an international bestseller. During the Second World War, de Céspedes was involved in the Resistenza and after that, married for the second time and mother of a son who is now grown up, led an independent life as an artist in Rome as editor of a literary magazine and successful author of screenplays and novels, and then in Paris from 1967 .

The existence of her heroine, which was cramped in every respect, could hardly have been more alien to someone than her – a good prerequisite for the perspicacity with which the novel shows how love turns into hate in a woman, how care and attention turn into unrestrained abuse, control and reverse punishment. The adult daughter, well on her way to becoming a capable lawyer, meets an older colleague who is also married? That must be stopped! Valeria lies in wait for Mirella at night, confronts her, slaps her and, moreover, leaves no stone unturned to thwart the love affair. Mirella, on the other hand, understands how self-sacrifice destroyed her mother internally: “For you, there is only the authority of the family. That’s the only thing you’ve been taught to accept unquestioningly, through punishment and fear.”

“He already had scratchy cheeks and was still saying, ‘I want to marry Mom.'”

The son, in turn, has made himself comfortable in the role of mama’s boy. “Until recently,” Valeria notes, “Riccardo wanted me to lie down next to him to fall asleep, I stroked his hair, his face. He already had itchy cheeks and kept saying: ‘I want to marry Mom.'” Meanwhile, spied on, Riccardo stalks and slanders his sister, impregnates his doll-eyed girlfriend Marina, whom he has labeled “docile”, and recklessly ruins all his own career prospects. After all, it is he who blocks his mother’s last concrete way out of the family situation. While her husband’s long-cherished hope of gaining fame and money as a screenwriter was finally dashed, Valeria had flirted with her boss, who invited her to a love trip to Venice – who knows what would have happened.

But then the diary says: “In truth, I do not feel bound by my marital and maternal obligations, nor does falling in love as a grandmother-to-be seem ridiculous to me. I am only afraid of destroying a patiently but small-heartedly accumulated capital, a treacherous loan that the people for whom I sacrifice myself must gradually repay.” This is the feminine consequence of the demands of the patriarchy, brought by the feminist Alba de Céspedes into a vivid picture from the financial sector: I will make myself disappear for you. And you will pay for it until the end of your life.

In 1953, when the novel was published, such clarity could only come as a shock. Almost seventy years later, she still does. Stunned, one sees a woman acting in constant fury, who consciously agrees to her own constriction, and knows: the model is not out of the world.

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