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Alba de Céspedes: Quaderno proibito (The Secret)

De Céspedes wrote this novel when she was in the United States, where her husband was serving as ambassador. It was later adapted as a play. It tells the story of Valeria Cossati, a forty-three year old woman, who suddenly realises that her life is no longer very interesting. One Sunday, she goes to the tobacconist and sees that he has diaries for sale. She tries to buy one but is told that, as it is Sunday, they cannot be sold. However, she persuades the tobacconist to sell her one and she takes it home. It is, she says, her intention to tell her family of the purchase and of her intention to keep a diary but she never does. Indeed, right at the end of the book, exactly six months after she started writing it, she announces her intention of burning it without ever having told them of its existence. She spends much of the time concealing it from her family, moving its hiding place around and locking it away.

Her family is her husband, Michele, who works in a bank and who is six years older than her, her son, Riccardo, and her daughter, Mirella. Both the children are at university studying law. At the beginning of the novel, everything seems all right on the surface. The children are studying well. Riccardo seems to have a girlfriend or, rather, several, to whom he talks on the phone but whom his parents have not met. Both she and Michele have good if not great jobs and the couple seem to be happy. Valeria, however, is clearly not happy. She cannot really put her finger on what is wrong – impending empty nest syndrome, bored with Michele or something more unspecified. Clearly she is unhappy and this is what prompts her to write her diary. During the six months, while there are a few domestic events that cause her concern, none of them is necessarily really major, with one possible exception.

The first issue is her daughter, Mirella. Mirella starts staying out late and Valeria discovers that she has been lying about where she has been. In fact she has been dating a lawyer fourteen years her senior. Though she turns twenty during the six month period, she feels that she is adult enough to live her own life and, of course, accuses her parents, her mother in particular, of living in the nineteenth century. As with other problems in this novel, the situation has an awkward twist. Her son has decided to get a job in Argentina, where, he hears, there are opportunities. At the same time, he is in love with Miranda, who seems to be something of a party girl and who has dropped out of school. Ricardo is very jealous but, again, things go wrong. In her own life, things are not too happy. Michele has started calling her mamma instead of Valeria, though he is six years older than her, and she resents this. He continues even when she asks him to stop. Though they get on, there does not seem to be too much affection between the two and he is also less strict with the children, which she also resents. She finds out that he has written a screenplay and when their friend Clara, who is in the film business, offers to read it, both are optimistic. Their optimism seems to be misplaced.

She does have a mother still alive but her mother has never been affectionate and though Valeria is, more or less, the dutiful daughter, she is not close to her mother. At work things seem to go well. However, when Michele becomes distant, partially because of his screenplay, she notices men who notice her and, inevitably, starts a relationship. The relationship is with her (married) boss, never a good idea but, in a de Céspedes novel, romantic relationships, whether between married couples or lovers, are generally not a good idea. In short, by the end of the six month period of the novel, her marriage is on the rocks, she is having an affair with her boss and her two children have relationships which also have their problems.

De Céspedes does not do fireworks. There are no great moments of passion or major events. Valeria slowly but surely finds life more difficult and more trying. In particular, she finds family life difficult and trying. De Céspedes beautifully charts her deterioration or, more particularly, her gradual move away from the joy of being a wife and mother to her realisation that it just is not worth it and that she is just not happy in her life. Is the solution in an affair? De Céspedes gives a qualified maybe as the answer. What is sure is that the answer is not a conventional marriage.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Mondadori
First published in English 1957 by Harvill