Obituary: Alba De Cespedes

Alba De Cespedes, novelist, short-story writer, journalist, scriptwriter and feminist: born Rome 1911; died Paris 14 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.

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fund, London

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fu...

Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Multicast, Low Latency

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Mul...

Network Infrastructure Engineer

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Infrastructure Engineer (...

Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Multicast)

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Mult...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition