Forbidden Notebook
by Alba de Céspedes
translated by Ann Goldstein

When I was a small boy, and television sets were small, too, there was a Saturday-morning kids’ show that featured an animated creature called Winkie or Twinkie. The only thing that I remember about this show is that, at each episode’s end, a clue to the next one was cryptically delivered in a series of images (we’d call them screens now) showing pieces of letters. The only way to decipher the fragments was to buy a plastic sheet from the producers of the show, and perhaps a special marker, and then trace the fractured bits of alphabet as they appeared; with each successive screen, the magic words would become clearer. This gimmick probably doomed the show, because I can’t have been the only mite who, when the domestic exchequer declined to fork over the necessary funds for the con, resorted to self-help, in my case with a tube of lipstick, applied directly to the tube of television. I can’t remember the punishment for my vandalism, but my solution never fails to make me laugh.

Oddly, this unforgotten experience came to mind in a connection almost wholly  devoid of laughter, the reading of Alba de Céspedes’ Forbidden Notebook.

Valeria Cossati, a Roman housewife, buys, in late 1950, a notebook on an impulse that is never fully explained in any of the diary entries with which she subsequently fills it. The diary is “forbidden” because her husband, Michele, and her university-aged children, Riccardo and Mirella, regard her as incapable of having a life in which anything is worth writing down. Whatever pleasure she hoped to get out of keeping a diary, she soon realizes that pain is more likely. Aside from the fretful agony (mentioned, and sometimes discussed, in almost every entry) of finding new hiding places for the notebook in her small apartment, and of determining  when it is safe to write in it, she is wounded by the realizations that her record forces upon her.

I was wrong to write about the conversation that I had with Mirella when she came home late and, after talking for a long time, we separated not as mother and daughter but as two hostile women. If I hadn’t written it, I would have forgotten about it. We’re always inclined to forget what we’ve said or done in the past, partly in order not to have the tremendous obligation to remain faithful to it. Otherwise, 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. (46-7)

Entry by entry, Valeria is forced to conclude that her life is unsatisfactory and, worse, that she is unable to change it. She is unable to change it because she does not want to live without a husband, without a respectable home. Romance beckons, but, however badly she longs for it, however beautiful the pictures of happiness that it blandishes, Valeria cannot take its hand.

I would have in common with him only sin and money. (256)

The notebook will have to be abandoned, too, — for Valeria faces an indefinite future of sharing her roof with a daughter-in-law, Marina, impregnated by Riccardo in anticipation of marriage, whom she neither likes not trusts.

She’s certain to find it somehow and find in it a motive to dominate me as I dominate her for what she did with Riccardo. (258)

Although I have revealed the ending, I have not spoiled it, because there is nothing new about Forbidden Notebook except the extraordinarily vivid life to which de Céspedes brings it. For that, I urge you to read it.