I Was Wrong to Buy This Notebook, Very Wrong: On Alba de Céspedes’s “Forbidden Notebook”

By Joy CastroMarch 4, 2023

I Was Wrong to Buy This Notebook, Very Wrong: On Alba de Céspedes’s “Forbidden Notebook”

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes

IN OCTOBER 1868 in Cuba—a colonized country where enslavement was still legal and Spain still ruled—Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a wealthy lawyer and plantation owner, famously issued the “Cry of Yara,” a political demand for universal suffrage, anti-colonial rebellion, and emancipation. First freeing all the enslaved Afro-Cuban workers on his own plantation by decree, he formed a revolutionary army, became the first president of the nascent republic, died in battle, and is today remembered across Cuba as the father of the homeland.

Half a century later and an ocean away, his granddaughter Alba de Céspedes (1911–97) also lived her life in public and on a grand political stage. A Cuban Italian writer and freedom fighter born in Rome, she worked as a reporter, bestselling novelist, screenwriter, radio personality, journal editor, and antifascist activist before, during, and after World War II: a bold, principled, politically engaged creative intellectual.

While de Céspedes lived a life of political resistance out loud, the protagonist of her novel Forbidden Notebook, Valeria Cossati, leads a far quieter, smaller existence. Issued serially in 1950 and 1951 in the popular illustrated Italian magazine La Settimana Incom Illustrata, which featured film stars like Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly on its covers, Forbidden Notebook is a domestic novel structured as the secret diary of a petit bourgeois, 43-year-old working wife and mother. Yet portraits of intimacy and domesticity, as de Céspedes well knew, can be powerfully political—even incendiary. “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” asked feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser in the 1960s. “The world would split open.”

De Céspedes could have easily written a book that spanned a much broader canvas. An ambassador’s daughter who was twice imprisoned for her antifascist political activities, she traveled to Cuba in 1968 to celebrate the centenary of her grandfather’s revolutionary cry for freedom. Her political awareness was keen. As the editor of Mercurio, an important journal of politics, science, and art in postwar Rome, de Céspedes was clearly conversant with an expansive cultural landscape.

But she chose the seemingly small scope of one woman’s interior world—her reflections upon her crowded apartment, her troublesome family, her ordinary office job—and chose to publish the novel in a venue that reached a broad popular audience. She deliberately used the vehicle of the domestic novel to explore issues of class, gender, and war.

Forbidden Notebook’s Valeria Cossati is a devoted mother of two adult children on the brink of independence. She has always led a quiet, industrious life serving her family and dutifully fulfilling her various roles—until, one day in autumn, on a whim, she purchases a notebook and begins to chronicle her life, in a voice dreamy and shrewdly observant by turns. She does so stealthily, aware from the outset that to explore her own point of view can only trouble the smooth waters of domestic contentment.

The seduction of keeping a journal is that the very act of paying attention can dignify our experience. “My life always appeared rather insignificant, without remarkable events,” Valeria observes. “Instead, ever since I happened to start keeping a diary, I seem to have discovered that a word or an intonation can be just as important, or even more, than the facts we’re accustomed to consider important.” Yet this heightened awareness brings peril as well, for by framing her life in language, Valeria provokes herself awake. Forced to review the events of her days to glean occurrences worth remarking on, she finds herself drawn to the most vexing or mysterious moments, those most filled with tension and ripe for exploration. Perhaps she doesn’t work only by necessity, as she and her family have always claimed, but for the satisfaction of the job itself—a subversive notion for her time. And perhaps she isn’t entirely satisfied with the lackluster sexual status quo of her long and faithful marriage.

Focusing, selecting, omitting, delving, Valeria becomes the author and editor of her own life—and afterwards, faced with the pages she’s written, she becomes its critic, forced to evaluate the documentary evidence of her days and dissatisfactions. Her dawning self-awareness quickly causes fissures in the facade of domestic bliss she has long worked to build.

The novel’s opening line marks Valeria’s self-condemnation: “I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong.” Throughout the narrative, she oscillates between self-recrimination and an acknowledgment of the deep allure of the luxury of mental solitude, of a virtual room of one’s own. There is no possibility of a literal one, for the family shares an apartment in Rome so cramped that they’ve made the living room into a bedroom for Mirella, the daughter, a strong-willed, sensitive, and politically principled young woman with views that disturb and challenge Valeria’s.

As Valeria records her honest impressions, various new insights erupt. Pretending to sleep next to her husband, she wonders if from “this continuous pretense of being asleep and remaining awake in one’s own anguish, without the other realizing it, the story of an exemplary marriage is made.” New desires burgeon, articulated in language for the first time, and the semblance of her tight-knit family begins to fracture. No wonder she repeatedly laments the provocation of confronting her own mind’s perspective, the way she has been pricked from slumber into consciousness. She becomes increasingly at war with her own desires. An extramarital romantic interest begins to blossom, threatening not only the stability of the respectable life she has steadily built for years but also the image of herself she has worked to maintain in the minds of all who know her, the “beautiful portrait” that her notebook reveals as a lie. Valeria discovers the hard truth that awakening can bring peril, not peace: “Facing these pages, I’m afraid. All my feelings, thus dissected, rot, become poison, and I’m aware of becoming the criminal the more I try to be the judge.” Alarmed by the potential of her own astute observations to destroy her domestic serenity if anyone discovers the notebook, she hides it in various places around the apartment, finally concealing it in “the ragbag.”

Due to these mounting tensions and de Céspedes’s choice to structure the novel as a diary with dated entries, Forbidden Notebook’s pace is quick, propulsive, and addictive. Intimate, smart, and smoldering, newly translated by Ann Goldstein (noted for her translations of Elena Ferrante, herself a passionate reader of de Céspedes) and introduced by Jhumpa Lahiri, Forbidden Notebook joins a global canon of work by writers such as Clarice Lispector, Colette, Jean Rhys, Margery Latimer, Mercè Rodoreda, and Mariama Bâ, unapologetically restricting its focus to the world of traditionally feminine concerns—home, family, romance, the convulsive desire for a prettier hat—while subtly engaging political issues and capturing an almost mystical, transcendently luminous awareness.

Valeria’s thoughts turn repeatedly to issues of socioeconomic class as they manifest in the material realities of her daily life and the lives of those who surround her: her elderly mother, still clinging to memories of the family’s lost prewar grandeur; Valeria’s friends, who don’t work outside the home yet enjoy a leisured luxury and engage in conspicuous displays of the jewels and furs their husbands buy them; and the many pleasures her wealthy boss enjoys. “The rich are afraid,” Valeria suddenly realizes, observing his anxious awkwardness with quotidian tasks she easily manages.

Yet much of the novel’s power comes from what is elided or only suggested, feinted toward but never quite said: the hovering, haunting presence of truths that we, like Valeria, cannot quite allow ourselves to know, lest everything go up in smoke. De Céspedes renders Valeria’s narrative unreliability with exquisite care, revealing it as being due not to any deception or malice in her character, but rather to her own learned obliviousness toward various forms of inequity, as when she muses upon the rifts in her relationships with old school friends: “Luisa, Giacinta, and I even have similar financial situations, since their husbands don’t make more than Michele and I combined.” Combined slips swiftly past, yet readers see how Valeria cannot quite bear to acknowledge what she knows. Readers may wince, too, during the several moments when they—but not Valeria—suspect that her husband’s visits to a woman in the film industry are less purely professional than he claims. De Céspedes trusts that readers’ acuity is as sharp as her own.

Other moments of unreliability are less sympathetic, and de Céspedes relies upon her reader to know more than the novel spells out. Like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which expects readers to know not only Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) but also the fate of the Caribbean under European colonialism, Forbidden Notebook expects readers to realize that “the war in Africa,” from which Valeria’s husband had written her romantic letters, is Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and that the moment “when he wore the uniform again, in 1940,” is World War II. Valeria reflects only on the impact of her husband’s absence upon her personal life, revealing an insularity and willed refusal to confront the political culpability of her own nation.

This, like much of Valeria’s life, will ring uncomfortably true to 21st-century readers in the Global North—particularly working mothers. Half a century before books like Women Who Do Too Much (1992) appeared, Valeria works until 7:00 p.m. before pulling a second shift of labor at home, which she comes to realize her family takes for granted: “It’s terrible to think that I sacrificed my entire self to beautifully perform tasks that they consider obvious, natural.” She also embodies the conflicts and tensions of the sandwich generation, dutifully attending to both her mother and her adult children yet emotionally and ideologically torn between her mother’s traditional values and the alarming new freedoms her daughter Mirella claims. “Maybe that’s why I often feel that I have no substance,” she reflects, wondering if her whole life functions as simply a “bridge” between their irreconcilable worlds: “Maybe I am only this passage, this clash.”

Much political fiction authored by women is never recognized as such, because it doesn’t look like War and Peace (1869). Historically confined to a small canvas by their own enforced domesticity, women writers have often produced fictions that unfold on a stage restricted to the domestic sphere of the home, the shop, the café, and perhaps an inconsequential job (often domestic itself). Seldom have their protagonists traversed the battlefield, the halls of government, or the worlds of business and the professions. “De Céspedes has been dismissed as a ‘romance writer,’” notes New York Times reviewer Joumana Khatib, “perhaps owing to her subject and primary readership (women), her gender or all three.”

Yet the power structure of domestic space works as both template for and mirror of those larger sociopolitical structures. Both can be egalitarian, life-affirming spaces of experimentation and play or authoritarian regimes of surveillance and control. Reconfiguring the intimate sphere can upend the world. All four members of the Cossati family struggle, as the narrative subtly makes plain, with thwarted ambitions and the pain of being misunderstood by those closest to them; the structure of domestic life itself begs to be reimagined.

Decades before journaling became a verb, Alba de Céspedes explored in Forbidden Notebook the insidious, inflammatory, radically self-affirming potential of women’s life writing. Like her grandfather ending slavery on his plantation before taking up arms against Spain, she knew that true revolution begins at home.


Joy Castro teaches literature, creative writing, and Latinx studies at the University of Nebraska. She is the author of One Brilliant Flame (2023), a novel about the 19th-century Cuban anti-colonial insurgency in Key West.

LARB Contributor

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of One Brilliant Flame (2023), a historical suspense novel about 19th-century Cuban insurgents in Key West; Flight Risk (2021), a finalist for a 2022 International Thriller Award; the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (2012), which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home (2013), which have been published in France by Gallimard’s historic Série Noire; the story collection How Winter Began (2015); the memoir The Truth Book (2012); and the essay collection Island of Bones (2012), which received the International Latino Book Award. She is the series editor of the Machete series in literary nonfiction at The Ohio State University Press and edited the anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (2013). She is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.


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