Obituary: Alba De Cespedes
Wednesday 26 November 1997
The sexist macho male is a stock figure of Mediterranean and South American nations, none more so than the Italian variety. In a land where la mamma is worshipped as a kind of household God and human battery hen, young single women have always had a hard time obtaining a modicum of respect from employers, fellow male workers and above all the man in the street, who still considers unaccompanied women as easy prey for unwanted complimenti, both verbal and physical. Having myself experienced such attentions from self- confident Romeos and serial seducers I know that these demonstrations of affection are far from flattering.
Alba De Cespedes was one of the leaders of the feminist movement that transformed Italian literature and life during the course of the 20th century. She was born of an aristocratic Cuban father, ambassador to various European cities, and an Italian mother - a promisingly explosive combination that soon became apparent in her nonconformist behaviour at school and her later anti-Fascist activities, for which she was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1935 and 1943, like her friend the novelist and poet Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950.
Pavese was one of the male writers who sympathised with the feminist movements of the mid-century, and his anguished realism strongly influenced De Cespedes' interpretations of the problematic situation in which Italian woman found themselves after the Second World War, in a so-called egalitarian democracy.
Her own style was passionately unorthodox, deeply self-conscious, politically idealist militant left-wing: and in a long period of totalitarian stupidity very courageous, as might be expected of the granddaughter of the man who abolished slavery in Cuba. Yet her literary expression was always controlled and lucid, her descriptions of character and environment based on acute observation and attention to detail learned from journalism, which she started at an early age, writing in small magazines but also in prominent journals like La Stampa, Evoca and Il Piccolo. Always she attacked accepted Italian notions of family and male supremacy.
The feminist movement in Italy really began in 1906, with the publication of Sibilla Aleramo's sensational and epoch-making novel La Donna ("The Woman"). Aleramo was a truly extraordinary individual, sexually uninhibited, pugnacious in her anti-domestic and anti-marriage views, yet sensitive and charismatic for a new generation of progressive women educators and artists. She was recently the subject of an impressively documented biography by Rene de Ceccatty, and her great novel enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, when a translation was published by Virago and reprinted by California University Press in 1992, to the acclaim of American feminists, both women and men.
Aleramo was greatly admired by Alba De Cespedes, who, when she started her own literary magazine, Il Mercurio, just after the war, published the ageing agitator alongside Moravia, Montale, Vittorini and Soldati.
De Cespedes' own works were also translated into English, beginning with Il Cielo e la terra ("Heaven and Earth") in 1950 (translated in 1953 as The Best of Husbands - ironic title), Prima e dopo (Between Then and Now, 1955) and Rimorso (1963).
But the novel that made her internationally known was Quaderno proibito ("Forbidden Diary" - The Secret in English - 1952, stage version 1962). This novel about a wife and mother who kicks over domestic and religious traces combines all the author's favourite militant feminist themes and political orientations in a composition of great clarity and humorous detachment: indeed, De Cespedes denied that it was specifically feminist in intention, for she, and other women writers like her near-contemporaries Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg, were becoming disillusioned by the violence and emotional excesses of the international feminist campaigns.
The novel is composed in the diary form abhorred by most editors and publishers, but which was a popular device among Italian women writers of the period (Doris Lessing's magnificent Golden Notebook appeared in 1962). Anna Banti's Artemesia, also in diary form, appeared in 1953. At the end of Quaderno proibito, De Cespedes writes: "All women keep a secret diary locked away - they should destroy it!"
She worked in the theatre and in films, and made a notable contribution to Antonioni's 1955 work Le amiche about girls living together in Turin, ineptly translated as The Girl Friends. It was adapted from her friend Cesare Pavese's Tra donne sole ("Among Single Girls").
In the late 1950s Alba De Cespedes left Italy and settled in Paris, where she was a well-loved figure in literary and movie circles. It was in Paris that she published her second volume of poetry (the first was Prigionie Liriche, 1936, about her first prison experiences). It was in French and entitled Chansons des filles de mai - a reference to the student revolts of 1968, and yet another example of her inborn militancy and defiance of authority. It was translated by her into Italian in 1970 as Le ragazze di maggio.
Thanks to that brave spirit, Italian male society has become markedly less macho, and their attentions more restrained: they have discovered that the boot is on the other foot.
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