Years ago a good friend advised me to destroy my journal pages soon after I wrote them, especially if I had used them to vent anger or frustration. Of course, I did not follow her advice. In the introduction to Alba de Cespedes Forbidden Notebook, Jhumpa Lahiri reminds the reader that “ whether intended for publication or not…(diaries and notebooks) are all dialogues with the self. They are instances of self-doubting and self-fashioning. They are declarations of autonomy…”
Recently I found a few old journals in a stack of papers I was going through to decide which could be shredded or tossed. When I read through them, I understood why Jane Austen had left instructions for her sister to destroy her notes after death. I realized I did not want anyone reading my thoughts from years ago when what seemed insurmountable then, feels irrelevant and unimportant now. So I finally took my friend’s advice and shredded them.
The book takes the form of a series of diary entries made by 43-year-old Valeria Cossati in Rome in 1950. She is wife to Michele and a mother of two grown-up children, Mirella and Riccardo. She also has an office job.
One Sunday morning she goes to the tobacconist to buy cigarettes for her husband when she notices a pile of notebooks in the window – “black, shiny, thick, the type used in school”. When she asks to buy one, the tobacconist tells her it is forbidden, as by law he is only allowed to sell tobacco on Sundays. She pleads and he gives in, insisting she “hide it under her coat” so the guard doesn’t spot it. At home Valeria continues to keep her notebook hidden from her family.
By the end of the novel, Valeria decides to destroy the journal, but she can’t eliminate so easily the self- knowledge she’s gleaned from writing it. She writes: “I know that my reactions to the facts I write down in detail lead me to know myself more intimately every day,..The better I know myself, the more lost I become. Besides, I don’t know what feelings could stand up to a ruthless, continuous analysis; or who among us, reflected in every action, could be satisfied with ourselves.”
The book written in 1952 has just been published in a new translation, and its focus on women’s rights and struggles still resonates today. Clare Thorp in her review for the BBC says: “The things that she discovers, she sees, it’s what we all struggle with still, and that was a little alarming. Immediately you’re just so pulled into it and engaged, it’s just amazing. I just feel like everybody should read this book.”
As Valeria struggles to find a safe place for her notebook and her private thoughts, it’s hard not to think of Virginia Woolf’s famous line of a woman needing a room of her own. In Valeria’s world, as with many women, there is no place for her husband and children to see her other than who she is in relationship to them. Having her own life and thoughts is unimaginable and unacceptable to them. The notebook becomes the place where she explores who she really is and is her only private space.