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||Alba de Céspedes (1911-1997)|
Italian writer and one of the pioneering figures in the feminist movement, best-known for her diary novel Quaderno proibito (1952). In her works de Céspedes drew attention to the woman's position in the family, which she saw as particularly problematic. Her protagonists are frustrated women who struggle with their identities and the narrow roles assigned them. Irene and Adriana, the two friends in the novel Between Then and Now (1956), want to live on their own terms in spite of family expectations – but they also recognize that life might be easier with a husband who pays the bills.
"'... You know, I'd like to pick up my life like a parcel and dump it in somebody's arms and say, "Now you think about it." But it's never possible, we've pulled down our own destruction upon us. Every morning you find life heavy on your shoulders and you have to start reasoning again. Pietro says that reason sets us free, but that isn't true: reason everlastingly confronts us with ourselves. That's a good joke!'" (in Between Then and Now)
Alba de Céspedes was born in Rome into a wealthy and influential family. She was the daughter of Laura Bertini y Alessandri, an Italian, and doctor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada (1871–1939), a Cuban ambassador, writer, and the first president of the Cuban Republic in 1933. His father Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo (1819-1874), called Padre de la Patria, made the declaration of Cuban independence and was appointed in 1869 President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms. He had freed his own slaves on October 10, 1868, saying, "From this moment forward, you are as free as I. Cuba needs all of its sons to fight for its independence. ('Cubans by Choice: Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and José Martí' by Thomas E. Skidmore, in Imagining A Free Cuba: Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and José Martí, 1996, p. 7) De Céspedes never met her famous grandfather, who died long before she was born. Noteworthy, De Céspedes supported Fidel Castro and attended in 1968 the centennial of the Grito de Yara, declaration of Cuban independence from Spain. However, the Communist regiment considered her an agent provocateur and cencored her writings. She firmly believed in socialism
in a bilingual home, De Céspedes spoke both
Spanish and Italian, but wrote most of her works in her mother's
native langue. At the age of fifteen, she married Count Giuseppe
Antamoro; they had one son. After divorcing him in 1931, she moved to
Rome. De Céspedes later married Francesco Bounous, an Italian diplomat,
and followed her husband to his posts in different parts of
the world. Before moving to Italy with her own family, she
lived in Paris, Washington, and Havanna; she hailed Cuba as an ideal
society and Fidel Castro as an exceptional man.
From the 1960s, following the publication of Il rimorso (1967, Remorse), she settled in Paris, where she lived until her death. Her favorite sports were swimming and skiing. De Céspedes had a huge personal library; she donated her library and documents to the Archivi Riuniti delle Donne, Milan.
Céspedes started to write poetry and plays in her
childhood, and by 1935 her stories started to appear in Italian
magazines. In the 1930s she worked as a journalist, contributing
to Epoca, where she had her own column, and served as the
editor of the literary section of La Stampa. Overstressed and
unable to focus on her own books, she went to the editor in chief of the newspaper,
and said to him, "fire me, please do me this favor." (Writing Beyond Fascism: Cultural Resistance in the Life and Works of Alba De Cespedes by Carole C. Gallucci and Ellen Victoria Nerenberg, 2000, p. 56) She never missed anything that resembled a full-time journalism job, but she continued to write for Epoca and La stampa.
degli altri (1935, The Soul of Others), Céspedes's first collection of short stories, attracted little attention, but her novel, Io, suo padre: Romanzo sportivo (1935,
I, His Father: A Sports Novel), was sent to represent Italy at the art
competitions held at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. (The gold
medal in epic works went to the Finnish writer Urho Karhumäki for his book Avoveteen, translated into German as Yrjö der Läufer: Roman). Nessuno
torna indietro (1938, There's No Turning Back),
which was translated into 24 languages and sold by 1943 over 150,000 copies, and La fuga
(1940, The Flight) were banned by the fascist censors, but brought her worldwide
recognition. Due to her writing, de Céspedes was interrogated at the
Ministry of Popular Culture several times. According to the
censors There's No Turning Back did not adequately
reflect a "Fascist ethic". "The main interest in this
book for English readers who want more than highly coloured
'romance' will lie in the considerable contrast between its
chief characters and their equivalents in this country," said the
reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. (Twentieth-Century Italian Literature in English Translation: An Annotated Bibliography 1929-1997 by Robin Healey, 1998, p. 33)
During the German occupation of Italy in World War II, de
Céspedes and her husband crossed Axis lines and worked with the
partisan Radio Partigiana in Bari. Her code-name on the program L'Italia combatte was "Clorinda" – "I am your Clorinda," she used to say
on the radio, "here is your Clorinda talking to you...." Following the
collapse of Fascism, she returned to Rome, where she founded in
1944 the literary magazine Mercurio. It published works
from modern Italian writers, such as Alberto
Moravia, Eugenio Montale and Elio
Vittorini. De Céspedes edited Mercurio for four years. Natalia Ginzburg's article Discorso sulle donne (1948, Discourse on Women), which she later dismissed as "rather stupid," was originally published in the magazine. (Maternal Desire: Natalia Ginzburg's Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters by Teresa L. Picarazzi, 2002, p. 195) The writer Italo Calvino, also born in Cuba, frequented her home in Rome.
After the war she became one of the most translated Italian writers – English translations in particular made her work known to feminist readers. In 1953 her fan mail totalled several hundred letters a week. De Céspedes herself refused the label "feminist," arguing that "Personally, I have nothing against men and I do not need anyone to free me. If we are talking about equality at work and equal pay, then I agree, but when one talks about sexual freedom, well, I have to laugh. Women have always been free, sexually. (Writing Beyond Fascism: Cultural Resistance in the Life and Works of Alba De Cespedes by Carole C. Gallucci and Ellen Victoria Nerenberg, 2000, p. 53) In her native country she was often ignored by male critics who considered her economically and effectively written novels superficial.
De Céspedes wrote eight novels, four collections of short stories, and three collections of poems, two plays, and screenplays. Her friends included the novelist and poet Cesare Pavese, whose novella, Tra donne sole, she adapted to the screen with Suso Cecchi D'Amico. Some crucial changes were made in the original story. In the novella, one of the characters kills herself out of disgust for the pointlessness of her life, but in the screen version she drowns herself for unrequited love. The film was directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Among de Céspedes's central works is Dalla parte di Lei (1949, The Best of Husbands), the story of a woman accused of murder. It presented a strong feminine protagonist, a type which was not very common in Italian literature. At the end she shoots her unattentive husband, a young university professor, instead of killing herself. "In piling most of the evidence and all of the sympathy on her heroine's side, she writes like a shrewd attorney for the plaintiff, but reads, finally, like a somewhat shallow judge of human relations." (Time Magazine U.S., Dec. 29, 1952)
Quaderno proibito (1952, The Secret) is a novel
presented in a diary form, in which the narrator,Valeria Cossati,
analyzes her needs and small everyday disappointments. Valeria has
two grown-up children, Riccardo and Mirella, and a husband who creates
his career in a bank. She works in an office, falls in love with the
manager, Guido, and blames her husband and children for stifling her.
Discontent with her life, she leaves Guido and burns her notebook,
feeling that her remaining days will be empty and cold. The novel was
also reworked as a play and a TV drama. Gli affetti di famiglia (1952, Family Affections), a play, was written in collaboration with A. Degli
Irene, the protagonist of Prima e dopo (1956, Between Now and Then), rejects safe bourgeois marriage to pursue her career as a journalist. After much pain and suffering, she comes to terms with her freedom. "'It seems impossible, but really it's just these material, practical things that make you realize you exist,' I told myself. 'You don't know you're born until you are faced with bills for which you're directly responsible...'" Remorse, compared by some reviewers to Simone de Beauvoir's roman ŕ clef, The Mandarins, told of a group of intellectuals and dealt with the significance of past actions. The work expressed a profound disappointment with postwar Italy: "... seeing Italy in the hand of the Christian Democrats is certainly not a beautiful thing, at least as far as I am concerned," she said in an interview. (Writing Beyond Fascism: Cultural Resistance in the Life and Works of Alba de Céspedes, edited by Carole C. Galluci and Ellen Nerenberg, 2000, pp. 55-56)
La bambolona (1967) was narrated in third
person, from the point of view of Giulio, a bachelor lawyer in Rome.
Giulio is ruined by his love for a much younger woman of a lower social
class, "la bambalona" of the title. The reviewer for the Times
Literary Supplement said of de Céspedes's story that "... perhaps
sharing her hero's philosophy that 'the only real authentic activity
for a man is to empty all his strength into the womb of a young woman',
she has poured over her pasticcio all'italiana a quite
unneccessary sauce ot other stories of love and sex. The result is
indigestion." (Twentieth-Century Italian Literature in English Translation: An Annotated Bibliography 1929-1997 by Robin Healey, 1998, p. 194) The
comic actor Ugo Tognazzi played the role of Giulio in
the screen version of the book. "If the author's previous novels evoked
the Italy of Antonioni and Fellini (for whom she has written film
scripts) La bambolona suggest the simpler and more zestful Italy of De Sica." ('Céspedes, Alba de,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 295) A volume of poetry, Chansons
des filles de mai (1969), was inspired by the events of May
'68 in Paris, which de Céspedes witnessed. The poems were written in
French and later translated into Italian by the author. De Céspedes
died on November 14, 1997, in Paris. Her autobiographical novel, Con gran amor (With Great Love), was left unfinished.
For further reading: "Tante cose da dire e da scrivere": Alba De Céspedes e il laboratorio creativo di Prima e dopo (1955) by Antonia Virone (2019); 'Alba de Céspedes (1911-1997)' by Carol Lazzarro-Weis, in Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies 1: A-J, edited by Gaetana Marrone (2007); Writing Beyond Fascism: Cultural Resistance in the Life and Works of Alba de Céspedes, edited by Carole C. Gallucci and Ellen Nerenberg (2000); Politics of the Visible: Writing Women, Culture, and Fascism by Robin Pickering-Iazzi (1997); Italian Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook, ed. Rinaldina Russell (1994); Esperienza e narrazione nella scrittura di Alba de Cespedes by Piera Carroli (1993); Women in Modern Italian Literature: Four Studies Based on the Work of Grazia Deledda, Alba De Cespedes, Natalia Ginzburg, and Dacia Maraini (Capricornia) by Bruce Merry (1990); 'Céspedes, Alba de,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Il romanzo italiano del popoguerra by G. Pullini (1961). "De Céspedes is a feminist in the sense that the focus of her interest in the life of the woman of today under the tensions of both traditional responsibilities and the pressures born of emancipation. . . . If her characters are not especially complicated, they are well drawn and convincing, and she has the rare gift of being able to tell a story economically and effectively." ('Céspedes, Alba de' by T.G.B. [Thomas G. Bergin], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton, 1980, pp. 156-157)