Look inside: an extract from Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes
Posted 2nd March 2023
About the book
Out running an errand, Valeria Cossati gives in to a sudden impulse – she buys a shiny black notebook. She starts keeping a diary in secret, recording her concerns about her daughter, the constant churn of the domestic routine and her fears that her husband will discover her new habit. With each entry Valeria plunges deeper into her interior life, uncovering profound dissatisfaction and restlessness. As she finds her own voice, the roles that have come to define her—as wife, as mother, as daughter—begin to break apart.
Forbidden Notebook is a rediscovered jewel of Italian literature, published here in a new translation by the celebrated Ann Goldstein and with a foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri. A captivating feminist classic, it is an intimate, haunting story of domestic discontent in postwar Rome, and of one woman’s awakening to her true thoughts and desires.
Read an extract below…
November 26, 1950
I was wrong to buy this notebook, very wrong. But it’s too late now for regrets, the damage is done. I don’t even know what impelled me to buy it—pure chance. I’ve never thought of keeping a diary, partly because a diary has to be secret, and so it would have to be hidden from Michele and the children. I don’t like hiding things; besides, there’s so little space in our house it would be impossible to manage. Here’s how it happened. Two weeks ago, it was a Sunday, I left the house rather early in the morning. I was going to buy cigarettes for Michele. I wanted him to find them on his night table when he woke up: he always sleeps in on Sunday. It was a beautiful day, warm, though it was late autumn. I felt a childish pleasure walking along the streets, on the sunny side, and seeing the trees still green and people happy as they always seem to be on holidays. So I decided to take a short stroll and go to the tobacco shop in the square. Along the way I saw that a lot of people were stopping at the flower stall, so I stopped, too, and bought a bunch of calendulas. “You need flowers on the table on a Sunday,” the flower seller said to me. “Men notice.” I smiled, nodding, but the truth is, I wasn’t thinking of Michele or of Riccardo when I was buying those flowers, even though Riccardo does seem to appreciate them. I bought them for myself, to hold while I walked.
The tobacco shop was crowded. Waiting my turn, with the cigarette money ready, I saw a stack of notebooks in the window. They were black, shiny, thick, the type used in school, in which—before even starting it—I would immediately write my name excitedly on the first page: Valeria. “I would also like a notebook,” I said, digging in my purse to find some more money. But when I looked up, I saw that the tobacconist had assumed a severe expression to tell me: “I can’t. It’s forbidden.” He explained that an officer stood guard at the door, every Sunday, to make sure that he sold tobacco only, nothing else. I was alone now in the shop. “I need it,” I said, “I absolutely need it.” I was speaking in a whisper, agitated, ready to insist, plead. So he looked around, then quickly grabbed a notebook and handed it to me across the counter, saying: “Hide it under your coat.”
I kept the notebook under my coat all the way home. I was afraid it would slide out, fall on the ground while the porter was telling me something or other about the gas pipes. I felt flushed when I turned the key to open the door to the apartment. I started to sneak off to my room, but I remembered that Michele was still in bed. Meanwhile Mirella was calling me: “Mamma . . . ” Riccardo asked, “Did you buy the paper, mamma?” I was agitated, confused, I was afraid I wouldn’t manage to be alone while I took off my coat. “I’ll put it in the closet,” I thought. “No, Mirella’s always going in there to get something of mine to wear, a pair of gloves, a blouse. The night table, Michele always opens it. The desk is now occupied by Riccardo.” I considered that in the entire house, I no longer had a drawer, or any storage space, that was still mine. I proposed to assert my rights starting that day. “In the linen closet,” I decided. Then I recalled that every Sunday Mirella gets out a clean tablecloth when she’s setting the table. I finally threw it in the ragbag, in the kitchen. I had only just closed the bag when Mirella came in and said, “What’s wrong, mamma? You’re all red in the face.”
“It must be the coat,” I said, taking it off. “It’s warm out today.”
It seemed to me that she might say: “That’s not true. It’s because you’ve hidden something in the bag.” In vain I tried to convince myself that I had done nothing wrong. Again I heard the tobacconist’s voice warning me: “It’s forbidden.”
Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes is out now.