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8 May 2024

Alba de Céspedes’s life of resistance

Informed by the novelist’s fight against Fascism in Italy, Her Side of the Story is a remarkable investigation into selfhood.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In October 1943 Alba de Céspedes spent a month hiding in the woods. She had been living in Rome, where she was briefly imprisoned by Benito Mussolini for anti-fascist activities. But after the Nazis invaded the Italian capital in September and conditions worsened, she and her companion (and later husband), the diplomat Franco Bounous, fled under the cover of night, first to a village in the Abruzzo countryside, then to the mountains, and then to the shelter of woodland.

As they hid, De Céspedes, a journalist and novelist, kept a diary. The couple and their comrades were not the only people concealing themselves in the countryside in an attempt to cross German lines and find safety in the Allied-occupied zone. The group grew nervous as they heard of others who had been found and slaughtered. In her diary, De Céspedes writes (translation by Ann Goldstein):

“News arrived of a massacre at S Agata. The Germans entered a farmhouse suddenly, seized the men, threw them against a haystack, mowed them down with machine guns. The women, all, were spared.

“This possibility of being saved owing to the sole fact of being a woman humiliates me deeply. It seems to me that my solidarity with Franco… can’t be complete, since, at the last moment, I would be unable to sustain it. When we flee all together or are crouching down, holding our breath, it seems to me that mine is an easy game.”

How did De Céspedes’s acts of resistance compare with those of her male comrades? In a country where women would not achieve suffrage until two years later, how could they mean as much?

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Alessandra, the protagonist of De Céspedes’s 1949 novel Her Side of the Story, now published in a new translation by Jill Foulston, asks herself the same questions. In the book, Alessandra recalls her youth during the rise of fascism in 1930s Rome. The only child of a couple whose first son, Alessandro, drowned as a little boy, Alessandra believes she holds an “evil power”, which she attributes to the “spiritual presence” of her brother. Her mother, Eleonora, is distant: from her hard-line, traditional husband, and from the world. Then Eleonora meets Hervey, the enigmatic son of a wealthy family whose house she visits to teach piano. She falls in love with him and the life he might offer her, and plots to leave Rome with Hervey and Alessandra, until the reality of her husband’s legal right over her quells her enthusiasm for freedom, and she follows her son’s fate.

Throughout the novel, De Céspedes presents an innate difference between men and women. Eleonora wishes her daughter had been a boy: “Men don’t have all the subtle reasons for unhappiness that we do,” she says. Later, Alessandra considers the brutality of the household labour that the women in her apartment block do every day. Of their husbands, she thinks: “Not a single one asked himself what being a woman meant.”

Alessandra marries Francesco, a university professor who is involved in the anti-fascist resistance. Her Side of the Story isn’t a novel of current affairs, so we find out very little about how his actions map on to real-world events. Mussolini is never named – though the “arrogant voice” Alessandra regularly hears coming through the radio is his. De Céspedes is far more interested in what this situation means for Alessandra’s understanding of herself. When Francesco goes into hiding to escape arrest, Alessandra picks up jobs for his circle, pulling back her hair and hiding coded messages in her bun, and delivering bombs – covered with layers of peas – on an old bicycle. Her political resistance is met with social resistance: Francesco wouldn’t like her doing this, she is told. Even comrade Denise, “an older woman who wore a beret” and always ignored Alessandra when she called into their apartment to see Francesco, warns her about her involvement. “Women should never be intelligent if they want to be happy,” she says. “It’s different for men.”

Her Side of the Story is a remarkable investigation into selfhood, made all the knottier by the fact that as its narrator recounts her life story she remains tortured by the legacy of her mother. When the Nazis abandon Rome, Francesco comes home. Alessandra is introduced to new comrades simply as “Signora Minelli”, while her husband’s “famous ordeals” are recounted. “I started to suspect that the bombs I had carried weren’t real; to wonder if only the ones the men carried were dangerous,” she says. By the end of the novel Alessandra has succumbed to madness and committed a violent act that will change the course of the rest of her life.

Alba de Céspedes y Bertini was born in Rome on 11 March 1911 to Carlos, a Cuban ambassador to Italy (and, for one month in 1933, president of Cuba), and Laura, his Italian wife. Resistance was in De Céspedes’s blood: her grandfather was Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the Cuban revolutionary who helped lead the fight for independence from Spain. Much of her seemingly glamorous life is shrouded in myth: some reports claim she married an Italian count aged 15, had a son and soon divorced, while others refer to the story as “rumour”. Either way, by her twenties she was working as a journalist, and from 1935 onwards was regularly publishing books – stories, poetry and novels.

Her 1938 novel Nessuno Torna Indietro (There’s No Turning Back), which follows a group of students at a women’s college, became a bestseller that was banned by the fascist censors – as was her next work, La Fuga (The Escape, 1940). Before her death in 1997 she wrote many more bestselling books, including the 1952 novel Forbidden Notebook, which Pushkin Press republished in a new English translation by Ann Goldstein (who also translates Elena Ferrante) in 2023. As with the work of many female authors who were acclaimed during their lifetimes, De Céspedes’s books fell out of print, in Italian and in translation. Only since 2021 has the Italian publisher Mondadori been reissuing her novels, but her resurgence has been significant, and a TV adaptation of Forbidden Notebook is in production. The republication in English of Her Side of the Story continues the overdue renaissance of this unorthodox neo-realist writer.

On 18 November 1943 De Céspedes was still in the woods in Abruzzo. It was too wet to light a fire, and the group had lost their “only treasure”, a pocket knife. Snow was due – if it came, the Germans would be able to follow their tracks. The next day, guided by a local farmer, the group crossed the Sangro River, which marked the German front line. Now in the Allied zone, they travelled to Bari, on the Adriatic Sea, in a farm cart.

In Bari, De Céspedes continued her resistance, broadcasting on the anti-fascist station Radio Partigiana – for which she was once again imprisoned. She and Bounous moved to Naples, and then, after its liberation by the Allies in June 1944, home to Rome. In September of that year she founded the monthly journal Mercurio. It ran only until 1948, but in that time published many great Italian writers, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Its final issue included “On Women” by Natalia Ginzburg (another anti-fascist activist and feminist writer who is currently enjoying an English revival), with a response by De Céspedes. In her essay, Ginzburg wrote (translation by Alessandra Bastagli) of “the real trouble with women”: “that women have the bad habit, now and then, of falling into a well, of letting themselves be gripped by a terrible melancholy and drown in it, and then floundering to get back to the surface… a danger that comes precisely from the female temperament or maybe from an age-old condition of subjugation and servitude that won’t be so easy to overcome.”

De Céspedes agreed with Ginzburg: “I, too, like you and like all women, have a great and ancient experience with wells: I often fall in and I fall in with a crash. But – unlike you – I think that these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall in the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men – who never fall into the well – will never understand.”

It’s the getting out of the well that counts. In Her Side of the Story, Alessandra clambers out on many occasions – until, finally, she just can’t manage it.

Her Side of the Story
Alba de Céspedes, translated by Jill Foulston
Pushkin Press, 512pp, £20

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[See also: When women fight back]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll