Resistance fighter, novelist - and Sartre’s favourite agony aunt: rediscovering Alba Céspedes

<span>Photograph: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Postwar Italian neorealism was one of the most exciting literary movements of the 20th century, but it’s only recently that the female neorealists have had the attention they deserve. In 2018, the publisher Daunt began its vital championing of Natalia Ginzburg, and now Pushkin brings us Alba de Céspedes. These women were famous in their lifetimes but have been forgotten since, and I think we owe their rediscovery to our own need for a reinvigorated realist novel during a moment almost as crisis-laden as Italy in the 1940s.

It’s telling that many of today’s most sophisticated realists, Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney among them, have been crucial in championing Ginzburg. And it’s no coincidence that all this began with Ferrante fever. Elena Ferrante herself owes so much to neorealism, and it’s she who has driven the rediscovery of Céspedes. In Frantumaglia, a collection of letters and reflections, she listed Céspedes’s The Best of Husbands as one of the few novels – “books of encouragement” – she could read while writing. Publishers everywhere rushed to find a copy, and this agile, conversational translation of Céspedes’s 1952 Forbidden Notebook, by Ferrante’s own translator, Ann Goldstein, is the first in a series of novels to be republished.

“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.” Forbidden Notebook is about a 43-year-old woman who, during a rare moment of freedom, wanders the streets of Rome on a sunny Sunday and buys a notebook from a wary shopkeeper (such items were prohibited on Sundays). Valeria returns to her husband and almost adult children only to realise she wants to hide the notebook but has nowhere to do so: “I no longer had a drawer, or any storage space, that was still mine.” She then begins a period of secret diary writing that feels sinful but is also a vital, unstoppable source of defiant personal definition.

Her feminist writing and communism made Céspedes a fascist target, and in 1943 she spent a month hiding in the woods

Elements of the novel are autobiographical, but Céspedes was a more glamorous figure than Valeria and came from a more dangerous and powerful world. Her grandfather was the first president of Cuba, having helped lead the fight for independence. With typically passionate recklessness, she married an Italian count aged 15, had a son, and divorced soon after. She then lived publicly as the lover of Francesco Bounous, an Italian diplomat, working together in resisting fascism.

Her first novel, There’s No Turning Back, became an instant bestseller in 1938. It’s the story of eight young women – a kind of early version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Her feminist writing and communism made her a target for the fascists and in 1943, she and Bounous escaped to Abruzzo and spent a month hiding in the woods, waiting to cross German lines. Céspedes had met Ginzburg before the war, and I’d be fascinated to trace their criss-crossing paths over these terrifying months. At just this point, Ginzburg fled Abruzzo to hide in Rome, where her husband would soon be arrested and tortured. Céspedes was safer than Ginzburg, because she wasn’t Jewish, but she put herself willingly in danger, broadcasting for partisan radio when she made it to Bari, getting arrested for the second time.

The war left her chastened but determined to live and to write. She became a major player in the Italian literary scene, publishing a series of novels chronicling this period of social change on an intimate, personal scale. She also edited a journal called Mercurio where she published the giants of Italian neorealism, and wrote an agony aunt column for the popular magazine Epoca. Here she achieved the astonishing feat of gaining enormous popular success and the esteem of the highest-minded writers of her day. At one point Sartre wanted to publish the columns as a book in France and write a preface himself. What she did – here and in her novels – was to combine intimate revelation about women’s bodily and emotional lives with a deep moral seriousness about the need for change within marriage as an institution and within women’s lives.

Forbidden Notebook is in part a documentation of postwar changes in women’s lives, observed with the meticulous detail of neorealism. Valeria’s daughter has an open affair with a not-yet-divorced man that horrifies her mother, who then comes to see this horror as symptomatic of a dead set of moral values. But Valeria’s diary also enables Céspedes to ask perennial questions about the value and dangers of an examined life.

What’s at stake emerges in a powerful exchange between Ginzburg and Céspedes in Mercurio in 1948, republished in the NYRB. Here Ginzburg bemoans the “bad habit” women have of “falling into a well”, floating or even drowning in “the dark and painful waters of melancholy”. Céspedes responds by saying that, though she agrees, she believes the well itself can be a source of strength. “Because every time we fall in the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human.”

It is this well Valeria falls into when she begins secretly to write, and finds that details she used to forget quickly amid the daily busyness of household tasks and office work take on new significance. Seeing how much resonance there is in a word or intonation, she begins to “understand the secret meaning of life”. There’s exhilaration here, but also fears that feel as though they must be Céspedes’s own: is the writer in danger of participating less when she’s analysing more? Is it too depressing to know the people closest to her too well?

For the reader, the discoveries of the notebook emerge as discoveries of freedom. We share Valeria’s pleasure and release when she manages secretly to write. Valeria is an unreliable narrator, though, and we see her cowardice and need to be loved more clearly than she does, and fear for her when she embarks on a love affair with her over-romanticised boss. The act of writing appears to have set off processes of change she can’t control, yet the love affair seems incompatible with the clear-sightedness of her writerly vision; her willingness to enter the well and look around in the murky water with open eyes.

Céspedes herself remained in the well, despite her diplomat husband’s growing disapproval of her writing, and emerged with confidence and elan to describe what she found there: “weakness, dreams, melancholy, aspirations, basically all those feelings that shape and improve the human spirit”.

• Lara Feigel is the author of Look! We Have Come Through! Living with DH Lawrence (Bloomsbury).