Writing Like a Partisan

Forbidden Notebook by Alba De Céspedes offers insight into contemporary Italian fascism

In October 2022, the far-right politician Giorgia Meloni became Italy’s first female prime minister. Her party, Fratelli d’Italia, campaigned under the same logo––a red, white and green flame––as the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) and the fascist motto “God, family, fatherland.” She heads Italy’s most far-right government since World War II. Shortly after her election, Meloni made an inflammatory speech in which she claimed to have been reduced to “citizen x, gender x, parent 1, parent 2”, an increasingly familiar refrain of “anti-gender” mobilizations around the world (as in Russia and Brazil). Her self-positioning as the protector of the (heteronormative, gender-conforming, nuclear) family from supposedly menacing left-wing forces is central to her politics. This position is part and parcel of a global wave of anti-gender, anti-immigrant nationalism that sees an “attack” on the family as an “attack” on the nation.

Alba De Céspedes’ intimate account of the “inescapable, tremendous force of the family” links Italy’s past with its present. In 1952, when Forbidden Notebook was first published, Italy was rebuilding itself as a newly democratic nation; however, while fascism had fallen, the power of the Church––and, consequently the ideal of the indissoluble family––remained strong. Paul Ginsborg writes of how, “in the Catholic world of the 1950s, no social message was preached with more fervour than that of the sanctity of the Christian family.” The formidable force of the family is the governing matrix of De Céspedes’ novel, which captures the tectonic intergenerational shifts, class dynamics and daily textures of postwar Rome in the form of a fictionalized diary. Forbidden Notebook takes the ordinary feelings which might fill the pages of a diary––conjugal discontent, maternal anxiety, shameful disclosure, everyday ennui––very seriously. Without sentimentalism, De Céspedes makes us feel the chronic, dull ache of the suppressed inner life. 

A Cuban-Italian writer from a political family, De Céspedes’ grandfather Carlos Manuel De Céspedes was Cuba’s first president and the leader of its first war of independence. Twice detained for her involvement with the Italian Resistance, De Céspedes’ bestselling first novel Nessuno Torna Indietro, or There’s No Turning Back (1938) was censored by Fascist authorities on the grounds that her depiction of young female students living in 1930s Rome did not conform to a “Fascist ethic.” A collection of short stories, La Fuga, or The Escape (1940) was also censored. In 1943, De Céspedes escaped occupied Rome to join the Allies in the South, where she worked as a Resistance radio personality known as Clorinda. De Céspedes was a diarist as well as a novelist, and, as Jhumpa Lahiri observes, “Forbidden Notebook fuses these forms and disciplines.” An entry written in 1943 while De Céspedes was a fugitive in the Abruzzi mountains speaks of the guilt of knowing she would not be shot, like her male comrades, if caught by the occupying German forces––her political solidarity dented by virtue of her gender. After the liberation of Rome in 1944, she founded the literary journal Il Mercurio, which became a forum for anti-Fascist intellectuals and published writers including Natalia Ginzburg and Ernest Hemingway.

In the 1940s and 50s, De Céspedes was one of Italy’s most popular and best-known writers, but in subsequent decades, her novels have been forgotten. Forbidden Notebook fell out of print and has only recently been reissued, first in Italy and now, as part of a wave of new editions (Spanish, 2017; German, 2021; Brazilian Portuguese, 2022), in Astra House’s/Pushkin Press’ new English translation by Ann Goldstein, known for her translations of Elena Ferrante. Its use of the diary as a novelistic device places De Céspedes’ Notebook within a feminist literary genealogy that can be traced at least as far back as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). It is a forerunner of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (1962), a hugely ambitious work of political commitment, and even of Annie Ernaux’s non-fictional diary Se perdre (Getting Lost, 2001), which writes through, with and around a blaze of female desire. 

Originally serialized in the illustrated magazine La Settimana Incom Illustrata during the same six months (December 1950-June 1951) that it fictionalized, the Forbidden Notebook’s entries would have been drip-fed to its first readers week by week. The early 1950s were a time of economic hardship, high unemployment and social deprivation: gli anni duri, the hard years. By the end of that decade, rapid urbanization, mass consumerism, and the “economic miracle” had transformed Italian society. This period of rapid change was particularly acute for women, who gained the vote in 1945 and joined the workforce in greater numbers than ever before––even as the Catholic Church continued to exert enormous pressure on men and women to fulfil conventional gender roles. Simonetta Piccone Stella has written of the “double front” faced by women at this time, caught between traditional and modern roles, an old and a new conformism. 

Forbidden Notebook thus takes place at the precipice of great social change, and its petit bourgeois protagonist, Valeria, is similarly wrenched between “two different worlds.” Absorbed in a daily struggle to make ends meet, she lives in a cramped apartment in an unnamed Roman suburb with her husband and two adult children, Mirella and Riccardo. She works as a secretary to supplement her husband Michele’s meagre income as a bank clerk, but, unlike Michele, works a double shift: when she comes home at night, the work of cooking and cleaning begins. Acquiring and keeping a diary––the eponymous forbidden notebook, or quaderno proibito–– involves subterfuge from the start. On a whim, Valeria buys the notebook from a tobacconist on a sunny Sunday, a day on which the vendor is not allowed to sell anything except tobacco. She persuades him to sell her the notebook under the counter, hides it beneath her coat, and then conceals it among some rags––the only storage space she can call her own––when she returns home. From then on, the ruses and concealments thicken and multiply. She buys football tickets with money from the shopping budget to get her family out of the house; writes in the bathroom at night, forgoing sleep; hides the notebook in old biscuit tins and trunks.

Why is the notebook “forbidden”? Initially, Valeria is afraid of her family’s scorn: what use has she for a diary? What could she, subsumed by her roles as mother and wife, possibly have to write about? She keeps it hidden without writing in it for two weeks, the tobacconist’s words re-echoing in her ears: “it’s forbidden."

But the prohibitions that surround the notebook are a vast zone, larger than embarrassment. The diary threatens household neglect and domestic disorder: “In order to write, I didn’t iron.” It is a cipher for the woman writing, of a disruptive inner life, and the vehicle of an emergent feminist and class consciousness. It is an “exorbitant account book,” a tally of reproductive labor, personified at various points as the devil, a vampire, a lover. Its empty pages promise the “freedom of the street,’” a virtual room of her own, and the agony of self-knowledge. The more Valeria writes, the more she has to conceal: the thoughts and feelings she writes down are explosive, incendiary, and their discovery would split her world apart. Increasingly, the notebook does not simply bear witness to a woman’s hidden dissatisfactions and desires. As the vehicle of her slowly, painfully raising consciousness,  the diary becomes a powerful engine of the plot, modulating her moods and behaviour and corroding the assumptions that bind Valeria to her roles as wife and mother. “Now under everything I do or say, there’s the presence of this notebook.” Valeria’s journal gives expressive form to that which seethes beneath the surface of everyday life. 

The narrator of Forbidden Notebook, though, is no revolutionary. Valeria speaks with the anguished voice of a “bridge” generation, torn between her parents’ conservative, prewar worldview and the new, progressive horizons that her daughter Mirella moves towards. 

Mother-daughter relations are one of the diary’s most charged and contradictory sites. Valeria is intensely preoccupied with Mirella, to the extent that at times the diary becomes a record of daughterly disobedience. De Céspedes writes with excruciatingly observed detail about the relationship between mother and daughter: as when Mirella, following a tense conversation with Valeria about her older lover, rests her forehead on her hands and starts to cry, keeping her fingers lifted to allow the freshly applied polish on her nails to dry. Mirella’s refusal to conform brings out a stubborn conservatism in her mother. But Valeria confesses to her diary the internal dissonance that underlies her attempts to control her daughter: “what I thought was solid in me loses substance as well.”  The fictionalized diary is a sustained exercise in dramatic irony. And then there is Valeria’s formal, reserved relationship with her own mother, a woman not just of another generation but of another, more aristocratic class. Valeria’s mother represents rigid, traditional values, down to her very posture: “I don’t know how to hold myself like her,” Valeria writes, “maybe because I didn’t wear a corset.” The most marked difference between mother and daughter is the fact that Valeria must work for a living. Valeria’s mother disapproves deeply of this situation; and Valeria’s own daughter is contemptuous of her grandmother’s attitude. As Valeria writes: “In me these two worlds clash, making me groan... Maybe I am only this passage, this clash.” At moments like this, De Céspedes’ writing can turn you inside out. 

The beautifully sustained ambivalence of characters like Valeria is the more surprising given De Céspedes’ own history of bold political commitment. The political contexts that so deeply shaped its author’s life are only fleetingly present in Forbidden Notebook. In one entry, Valeria recalls fascists passing by in the street with “skulls drawn on their black shirts,” and we learn only in passing that her husband Michele fought under Mussolini during Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and in World War II. But even on the small domestic stage on which Forbidden Notebook is set, De Céspedes wrote as a partisan. In the space of a few years, women like De Céspedes had gone from being protagonists of the partisan struggle to traditional gender roles reinforced by the Italian Church and state––a reversal painfully relevant to our own revanchist, post-Roe present. 

This tremendous reversal is traceable in De Céspedes’ literary life. In 1948, her radical journal Mercurio folded for want of funds, and in the 1950s (a decade which saw a surge in the consumption and popularity of the weekly magazine), she turned instead to writing an advice column for the weekly magazine Epoca. In this column, titled “Dalla parte di lei,” or “From Her Point of View,” De Céspedes would respond to letters from troubled readers––men as well as women––on issues personal, moral and often controversial. Here, as in the Forbidden Notebook, De Céspedes wrote as a partisan––not fighting on open terrain, but forcing her enemy into another space. Through the medium of the popular magazine, she exposed the contradictions and constraints of Italian sexual morality and social customs, as Penny Morris has discussed. De Céspedes’ choice to serialize her novel in a weekly newspaper column signals her intended audience––stars such as Sophia Loren and Grace Kelly often featured on La Settimana’s covers. Yet it seems likely that this very political astuteness was responsible for the subsequent dismissal of De Céspedes as a popular “romance” writer.

It's true that Forbidden Notebook is a novel of parallel love affairs: between Valeria and her boss, Mirella and an older man, and, perhaps, between Michele and Valeria’s emancipated friend, Clara. But the central love affair is that between Valeria and her diary. On February 6, 1951 Michele catches his wife writing late at night and immediately suspects an affair, and he is not wrong. Recalling the whim that led her to buy the notebook on a sunny late autumn day, Valeria describes how “I was alone and it didn’t seem to be right to be alone on such a day, so I went home in the arms of the notebook.” The diary provides solace against a spiritual loneliness and fulfils her “secret desire” to be fully known, not only as “Mamma” but as Valeria. The affair with the diary is more profound than her real-life affair, and she finds that her most “intimate meetings” with her boss, Guido, are “when I open this notebook at night.” Similarly, “the only remorse I suffer, when I’m with [Guido], is that I’m stealing time from the family, from the house, the same I feel writing in this diary.” The remorse Valeria associates with writing, the realization of a suppressed inner life, of transgressive, overflowing desire, is the remorse of the affair.

That remorse is deeply connected, in Valeria’s mind, to the neglect of her reproductive work. This powerful feeling constitutes a kind of remorseful resistance to the naturalization of gender roles. At one point, Valeria writes of her “violent, greedy desire” for domestic disorder: dirty plates, unwashed laundry, unmade beds, a home in disarray. At other times, she is in Stockholm-Syndrome-like thrall to her orderly drawers. In Fascist Italy, as Victoria de Grazia tells us, little girls like Valeria were taught that “the Nation is served by keeping the house swept, civic discipline commences with family discipline.” 

In its overlaying of productive and reproductive labour, Forbidden Notebook anticipates feminist critiques of domestic labour that gained international traction in the 1970s. Valeria divides her time between duties to two men, her boss and her husband, and two spaces, the office and the kitchen. The space of the office is liberating compared to the cage of domesticity, but Valeria recognizes, if only glancingly, that she bears a double burden: “I belonged to those two men and had to obey both, even if for different reasons.” As Silvia Federici would write, twenty years later: “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.” Thanks to her affair with the boss, even Valeria’s waged work becomes engulfed in love that masks oppression. 

Set as it is on the verge of Italy’s economic miracle, the temptation of luxury commodities threads through the notebook, and women are the primary targets of this new consumerism. Feminine capital is bound up with consumption, with buying, spending, being looked at, and desired. In one of the diary’s more political passages, out shopping in central Rome, Valeria is tempted by a display of purses. The desires the purses provoke in her are conflicting, but their cost is prohibitive. “A purse can’t cost what a man earns in a month; no one should have the guts to carry it.” This intense feeling of alienation reaches its height outside a jeweller’s, where Valeria looks at precious stones laid out on brown velvet, objects of capital that are worth “years of work,” hers and her husband’s. “[M]y whole life,” she writes, “could be enclosed in one of those stones.”

The Notebook’s distinctive interweaving of class and gender understands that you can’t change one without toppling the other. A red coat, which Mirella wants and Valeria buys for her daughter’s   birthday, takes on particular significance. It is an object of desire, a symbol of wealth, of possibility, and youth. It also becomes an instrument of surveillance and a sign of promiscuity: leaving her lover’s house early one Sunday morning, Mirella is identified by her bright red coat. Clothes function as markers of social strata and belonging. When Valeria meets with her old school friends one afternoon, she becomes acutely conscious of her drab dress and the gulf that has opened up between them, now that she is a waged worker rather than a supported wife. The others assess their friend Margherita’s fur coat “as they would have assessed the husband’s physical power: the jewelry he gave Margherita, the expensive dresses, were equal proofs of virility.” Femininity, adorned and at leisure, affirms masculine status and power. And then there is a new blue slip that Valeria buys, tries on, feels sexy, and then––in the face of her husband’s indifference–– returns as a needless extravagance. Valeria’s slip is denoted as an indulgence, an indulgent slip, which reminds me of a recent meme in which Freud’s face is printed onto a slip dress, a Freudian slip commodified. I want one, too.

Through the unsteady lens of Valeria’s emergent consciousness, the diary moves from the granularity of the everyday to shuddering––if veiled––revelations. In its pages, we encounter the (extortionate) price of artichokes, the “bleak click” of cinema seats, and the impossibility of having sex without being overheard in a tiny apartment. These objects and details are more than the sum of their parts. Goldstein’s translation of De Céspedes’ prose is full of the power of the unsaid, heavy with invisible,  socialized prohibitions. When Valeria and Michele go to the cinema to see an American film which shows a husband helping his wife to wash the dishes, the audience erupts with laughter and, Valeria confesses, “I felt like laughing too.” The laughter of the group consolidates conventional gender roles, and, against her better judgement, Valeria is drawn in by the crowd. 

Transparencies and obscurities––a kind of literary chiaroscuro––are one of the novel’s organizing motifs. Valeria initially thinks of herself as “transparent, simple, a person who had no surprises either for myself or for others.” When she looks for a place to conceal her diary from her family, the furniture in their tiny apartment suddenly seems transparent, made of glass. And when, through writing, a new self-knowledge emerges, the revelations it brings are often veiled, seen through a glass darkly, too bright to be looked at directly. As Valeria writes, on March 16, 1951, “I flee every precise thought.” These off-kilter perceptions and obfuscations concentrate around the family and culminate in one of the diary’s final revelations that “when [the family] 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.” De Céspedes draws masculinity into the frame: the suppressed inner life is not uniquely feminine. Michele, too, writes feverishly in secret, although the medium in which he writes––a film script––is directly commodifiable.

The critical consciousness fostered by the diary gives Forbidden Notebook its thick undertow of latent feminine power. There is something undeniably femme about the diary, an emotional, confessional, intimate form of writing. Anaïs Nin has written of the impact of her own diaries on the burgeoning women’s movement of the late 1960s, and the diary’s capacity to help the subaltern find their own expressive language. We may think of “the personal is political” as a 1970s slogan, but it was key to this generation of Italian women writers and their literary experiments. The 1950s, as Molly Tambor has shown, were not just one long snooze before the revolutions of the late 1960s. In 1959, Gabriele Parca’s bestselling Le Italiane si confessono (Italian Women Confess) was published, a collection of hundreds of letters sent by women to advice columns. Parca concluded that women’s sex lives remained hidden, unknowable, characterised by taboo. Towards the end of Forbidden Notebook, writing by now in a more baroque style, Valeria tells us that she writes to “let a rich stream that runs in me and pains me flow freely, as when I had too much milk.” This is a line that could have come straight out of Hélène Cixous (“she writes in white ink”). But Valeria’s is only a partial awakening.

It is the relentless “authority of the family” that finally perpetuates Valeria’s entrapment in the home and re-commits her to “a life spent for others.” The profound feelings of familial obligation that marshal the novel’s denouement are not flimsy, even if they seem strangely insubstantial across historical and geographical distances: they are the fabric of which a conservative cultural politics is made. In an escalating state of paranoia reminiscent of the spiralling narration of the “Yellow Wallpaper,” Valeria destroys her diary. In twenty years’ time, the consciousness-raising groups of the early feminist movement would enable women to understand their emotional distress as political. At the start of the 1950s, disconnected from the organised women’s movements of the time, Valeria’s distress cannot be translated into concrete political claims, such as demands for free childcare. Instead, “that awareness turned to acid in me.” 

 Forbidden Notebook is really about the ways a diary––the act of keeping it––acts upon the keeper. It is an experiment in what the thoughts and feelings given form by the diary make possible, or impossible. The time a diary keeps is ostensibly linear, but realizations and causations loop back and around in echoes and repetitions. Diarizing offers an alternative to daily life by articulating an independent self among the debris of the quotidian, and these reconstructions of the self––provisional and interrupted as they are––cannot be destroyed along with the paper record.

The state of sustained deep reflection fostered by the diary is de-incentivised within our own fragmented “attention economy,” and for good reason: it is less easy to monetize and manipulate. The cultivation of profound self-knowledge is a subversive act. The documentation of our everyday lives on social media platforms shares some common ground with the diary, but with a social, public form of the diary rather than the private, prohibited journal intime of the Forbidden Notebook. 

I am an obsessive diarist, and when I read Forbidden Notebook for the first time, Valeria’s compulsion to write and her fear of that writing’s transgressive power were instantly recognizable. A frisson of transgression surrounds the diary; even reading a fictionalized diary has a transgressive flavour to it. Diaries are dangerous objects, and not only if they are discovered. As De Céspedes’ astute study of the introspective knowledge gained through writing shows us again and again, in Valeria’s words,

We’re always inclined to forget what we’ve done in the past, partly in order not to have the tremendous obligation to remain faithful to it. 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.

When everything that happens is fixed down in writing, made more lucid but also more obscure, it becomes harder to live the life you did before.

Seventy years after the publication of Forbidden Notebook, the family retains its near-sacred status, as its susceptibility to a fascist politics shows. To question the priority accorded to the family remains virtually unthinkable (with some bold exceptions). What we find in Forbidden Notebook is an attempt to explode the ideal of the family from within: a forerunner of the ‘Dreamers, awake!’ mode that rose to prominence in the art and music of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the novel-diary, as in her advice column, De Céspedes undoes common-place assumptions and evokes a sense of radical possibility within a conventional format, and through familiar themes: the family, love, sex, relationships. At a time when the family is either weaponised by the far-right, or the final bastion of survival against social and economic precarity in our own anni duri, Valeria’s recommittal to the family reminds us of the difficulty of escaping such deeply rooted structures, but also leaves us longing for a different ending — for the possibility of emancipation from the family’s formidable force. Perhaps stories of failed awakenings are what we need most – reminders of what is at stake, when we undergo a paradigm shift but do not act; when we betray our emergent desires by clinging to what is known, despite the many ways in which it fails us; when the awakened slip back into social and intellectual torpor.

The final conceit of Forbidden Notebook — that Valeria’s diary is destroyed, its near-unthinkable critique of the family suppressed — is a sign of its power. But De Céspedes’ account of the alienating, confining, tenacious force of the family endures.