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Forbidden Notebook (1952)

by Alba De Céspedes

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2595103,654 (4.23)5
"In this modern translation and exquisitely crafted portrayal of domestic life, Forbidden Notebook centers the inner life of a dissatisfied housewife, Valeria Cossati, living in postwar Rome"--

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English (4)  Italian (1)  All languages (5)
Showing 4 of 4
Phenomenal! ( )
  archangelsbooks | Apr 3, 2024 |
A novel of intense interiority that showcases change at the societal and personal level, Quaderno Proibito was published in Italy in the early 1950s (first serialized, then as a book), translated into English in 1957 as “The Secret”, and now given a new English translation in 2023 as “Forbidden Notebook”. Written in diary format, it deals with the struggles of a 43 year old woman to come to terms with her life choices and what she wants from her life in the current day. Its first English title emphasizes that she has been and is withholding information - such withholding is and has been from herself as well as from those close to her. Its new English title, more literally translated, points to the field of play where such information is brought forth and explored by its “author”, Valeria Cossati.

In the forward to this new translation Jhumpa Lahiri states that diaries and notebooks are “declarations of autonomy.” That Valeria would even keep a diary, thus claiming some autonomy for herself, is seen as absurd by her family when raised as a theoretical early in the novel. Her family consists of a husband and two children who are on the cusp of adulthood. None of them can conceive of Valeria as an individual actor; everything she is and does is rather embedded into the family. She hardly exists except in that context so what would she need with a place for her autonomous self to emerge.

Beginning a diary was a sudden decision by Valeria, seemingly a subconscious impulse that could not be denied. We can see it as her true inner self demanding to be acknowledged after long suppression. What allowed this breakthrough might be identified in a couple of factors external to Valeria that have pierced her routine. First the changing mores and expectations of women in post-war Italy, a nation shattered by fascism and war. Valeria herself has been forced into the labor pool by poverty, while still feeling the weight of expectation to be a selfless domestic worker at home by her family. Secondly and relatedly is the rebellion against the traditional gender roles assigned to women by her daughter Mirella, a physical and close to home embodiment of societal level changes that forces Valeria to confront the worldview she has previously taken for granted, and to examine her past choices and future options.

This is uncomfortable. Feeling unmoored from our beliefs, questioning what we have previously viewed as truth, is such an unpleasant experience that humans of all backgrounds and ideological systems have a strong tendency to avoid it! Valeria forges ahead however, despite being well aware that, as she writes, “I have to acknowledge it isn’t making [my life] any happier.”

In the notebook Valeria comes to admit to herself that in fact she is not happy and hasn’t been for a long time. Her unhappiness is caused by and embedded in a family structure that retains traditional expectations, and yet she finds herself fighting to defend these very expectations and structures against Mirella’s rejection of them. While this is going on Valeria begins a hesitant romance with her boss even as she continually says it is “not possible”, and futilely tries to resurrect some emotions in her love-dead marriage. All this cognitive dissonance does nothing to advance her happiness or peace of mind, though it does begin to present openings into a new way of being, and new possibilities that might lead to happiness.

Whether Valeria will be able to take advantage of them is still uncertain at the end of the novel. The family with its tyrannical demands asserts new claims over her and an entire lifetime’s way of being is still powerful. In the manner of a fallen soldier urging on a comrade, she tells Mirella, “Maybe I won’t tell you any more, but remember what I told you tonight: save yourself, you who can do it. Go, be quick.”

Not a quick read for me, I think I spent as much time thinking about Valeria outside the bounds of the text as the character would have spent thinking in real time, ha, but a remarkable peek into an historical moment and a human consciousness. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |

“My life always appeared rather insignificant, without remarkable events, apart from my marriage and the birth of the children. 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. If we can learn to understand the smallest things that happen every day, then maybe we can learn to truly understand the secret meaning of life. But I don’t know if it’s a good thing, I’m afraid not.”

In November 1950 forty –three-year-old Valeria Cossati purchases a black notebook from a tobacconist – a “forbidden” item as the tobacco is not permitted to sell anything but tobacco to his customers. Her journal entries give us a window into Valeria’s home, her family, and Valeria herself as documented over the next six months. Valeria’s life revolves around her family – her husband Michele, and her two grown children Riccardo and Mirella. Financially they are getting by but are not well-off. Valeria is not simply a housewife but also works to supplement her husband’s income- a fact that is frowned upon by her own mother whose family comes from more affluent origins. Valeria is trapped in a conventional marriage despite her having the freedom to work. She is conflicted but unable to express her true feelings, correctly assuming that it would fracture the delicate balance she has established within her family more often that not at the cost of stifling her own wishes and desires.

“I often have a desire to confide in a living person, not only in this notebook. But I’ve never been able to. Stronger than the desire to confide is the fear of destroying something that I’ve been constructing day by day, for twenty years, the only thing I possess.”

Valeria is anxious and consumed by feelings of guilt and fears that her secret diary will be discovered. Multiple times throughout her diary she shares how difficult it is for her to hide this diary and how she keeps changing where she keeps it. She yearns for a “space” that she can call her own – her bedroom is occupied by her husband who spends time listening to music or reading in his free time, her children have their own rooms and she is left to write her entries at night after everyone is asleep in constant fear of being discovered.

“Because when I write in this notebook, I feel I’m committing a serious sin, a sacrilege: it’s as if I were talking to the devil. Opening it, my hands tremble; I’m afraid. I see the white pages, the dense parallel lines ready to receive the chronicle of my future days, and even before I’ve lived them, I’m distressed. I know that my reactions to the facts I write down in detail lead me to know myself more intimately every day. Maybe there are people who, knowing themselves, are able to improve; but the better I know myself, the more lost I become.”

Valeria’s “forbidden” notebook, proves to be an outlet for her most private thoughts, a place she can vent her frustrations, anger, and disappointment towards her marriage, her husband, her children and life in general. Valeria’s diary gives her a voice and the opportunity to be herself and understand herself even though she is unable to share the same with anyone. Valeria struggles as she reflects on her marriage and tries to hold onto the values and principles she has adhered to all her life. She is unable to reconcile with the way her children, her daughter in particular chooses to lead their own. Her husband attributes her conflicts with Marilla to “maternal jealousy” which gives you an idea of how marginalized Valeria is in her own home. She also shares her budding friendship with a colleague, a friendship that does not come with a preconceived set of expectations, unlike all her other relationships

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein is a stunningly insightful novel that is both timeless and relevant in its appeal and impactful in its message. The Foreword by Jhumpa Lahiri provides insight into the historical context of this novel. The narrative is shared from Valeria’s perspective through a series of journal entries. Originally published in its original Italian as a series in the magazine La Settimana Incom Illustrata, between December 1950 and June 1951, Valeria’s journal entries give us a glimpse into the societal norms and social class distinctions, gender roles and expectations and the generational differences in terms of mindset and ambition in the post-war years. Mirella and Valeria and their arguments on how women should lead their lives give us insight into how women perceived their roles in a changing society. What strikes you as hypocritical is Valeria’s family’s attitude toward her need for privacy. When mentioned in passing, the very idea of Valeria keeping a locked drawer for her personal use like the other members of her family or even owning a diary where she might write down her thoughts is laughable to the rest of her family. Her husband goes one step further to point out that their daughter Mirella could need a private diary, given her youth and need to keep secrets but why would Valeria need a diary? What could she possibly write in it? Her family’s regard for Valeria despite her being an earning member of the family differs greatly from the respect Michele receives. This is a nuanced and complex novel but the prose is simple yet elegant and the author writes beautifully, engaging the reader from the very first page. The ending might leave you disheartened but will compel you to think about Valeria long after you’ve finished reading her diary.

I paired my reading with the exceptional audio narration by Cassandra Campbell which transported me to Valeria's world.

“When I started writing, I thought I’d reached the point where conclusions could be drawn about one’s own life. But every experience—even the one that comes from this long questioning of myself in the notebook—teaches me that all life passes in the anguished attempt to draw conclusions and not succeeding. At least for me it’s like that: everything seems, at the same time, good and bad, just and unjust, even transient and eternal.” ( )
  srms.reads | Sep 4, 2023 |
At night, when we 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, out of shame or spite.
from Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes

Self-knowledge can be dangerous.

A busy mother, juggling a job and family, impulsively buys a notebook. It was Sunday, and the shop owner was forbidden to sell anything but tobacco. She insisted, and he allowed her to secret the notebook out under her coat.

She had to carve out private time to write, neglecting her household duties, staying up late. She wrote about her life, which she thought was happy, but over time she is disturbed to discover that she is not the woman she had believed herself to be.

For the first time she is keeping a secret from her husband. She agonizes over where to hide the notebook, terrified it will be found, first because keeping a diary is considered a juvenile activity inappropriate for a middle-aged housewife, and later for fear of of what was on those pages: a burgeoning awareness of her own needs and desires, her need for space and a place to be alone, her discontent with her children and husband.

It is 1952 post-war Italy. Valeria’s family had once been wealthy. She was a child during WWI, later saw black shirts marching down the streets. As newlyweds, her husband was in the army. She purchased shoes on the black market, and raised her children during the post-war financial struggles.

Valeria’s husband’s salary at the bank was inadequate, so she went to work at a time when few women had a job. She no longer felt in sync her school friends, vapid wives who manipulate their husbands to get more money to spend on themselves. Her daughter is studying law, but rejects traditional values and morals and faith in a pursuit of financial success, becoming involved with an older, married man. Valeria’s student son is in love with an old-fashioned, uneducated girl, who is sidetracking him from his studies. And Valeria’s husband spends his evenings listening to Wagner, dissatisfied with his life, inattentive to his wife. He dreams of a different life.

…I know now that none of us know what we truly are, we hide, we all camouflage ourselves, out of shame or spite.
from Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes

Valeria enjoys her work, which brings great satisfaction. She realizes that her boss has feelings for her, and they begin to meet, first at the office on Saturdays, then at cafes or driving in his car. They are both lonely and feel invisible to their families. Valeria is Mama to her husband, no longer ‘wife.’ She is Bebe to her mother. To her boss, she is indispensable.

Each character is brought to a crisis, a decision.

What a marvelous book! There are so many insights that will resonate with women today. Valeria’s understanding of her family and her discontent is slowly revealed. Behind the story looms WWII, fascism, the destruction of the old world and the birth of a new. It is an exploration of love, its limits and failures, the duties that hold families together.

Valeria’s mother’s house is filled with large family portraits. Valeria will inherit them, but they are too big for her modest apartment. As her mother tells her how to treat the frames, she knows she can’t keep them. “It began in wartime,” she thinks, “suddenly you could die and things had no importance compared to the lives of human persons…The past no longer served to protect us, and we had no certainty about the future.” Her mother belongs to the old world, and her daughter the new world.

“For the first time in twenty-three years of marriage I’m doing something for myself,” Valeria realizes as she writes in the book. As she discovers her true self, and realizes her family’s real natures, she considers grabbing at a chance for personal happiness. But who is the real Valeria–the woman on the page, or her actions and choices in real life?

I received a free book from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased. ( )
  nancyadair | Feb 13, 2023 |
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» Add other authors (27 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alba De Céspedesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Goldstein, AnnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lahiri, JhumpaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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