Life & Culture

Meet the Cuban-Italian Simone de Beauvoir

Our critic relishes a novel about a formidable feminist


Italians round up a suspected fascist outside a shop they've just bombed, in 1944

If you were a Cuban, Italian, or indeed Cuban-Italian, writer born in the early 20th century, it was usual to assume that the male version of any given story was utterly the norm. The novelist de Céspedes, who was born in Rome in 1911, knew better.

Throughout her career she argued in her journalism and demonstrated in her novels, short stories and poetry how “women’s writing” could view, record, name, even influence things differently. The first word of the title of 1949 novel Her Side of the Story, her most recent novel to be translated into English and hailed on publication in La Repubblica as a “feminist classic about a woman’s struggle for independence under fascism”, is a shout-out in favour of changing the narrative.

Throughout her work, de Céspedes wrote from life. Her fiction hinges on real people, even when not identified by name. The narrator of Her Side of the Story, Alessandra, is, of all the many defining women in de Céspedes’ fiction, the one most true to de Céspedes herself. Growing up in Rome in the years before the Second World War, Alessandra rejects traditional female roles and damns the consequences. Her rebelliousness drives her father to board her with his relatives in the countryside, adopting their traditional way of life.

Yet Alessandra remains true to her inner voice. She uses her time in exile to protest at the exploitation of local women and the “double day” – on the land and at home – they were obliged to work. She declines to marry a local landowner and returns to Rome where she is taken up by her university professor. As a fellow anti-fascist, he at least should understand her anti-patriarchal stance regarding relationships. Instead, there is strong resistance to  Alessandra’s view that women should not be treated as an underclass, whatever their social class, and respected as men’s equals. As the Second World War looms, the stage widens and history on a grand scale begins to override what de Céspedes does best: relaying inner voices as well as public lives. For her, even as an author, political resistance became the only way forward, to such an extent as to suggest this novel’s brutally shocking conclusion could have been read as tempting fate.

De Céspedes credited her Cuban-Italian heritage for her moral approach to politics. She was the granddaughter of Cuba’s first president, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo, who earned the soubriquet “Father of the Fatherland” by fighting to liberate Cuba from Spain and declare an end to colonial slavery. De Céspedes herself paid for her anti-fascism with detentions in 1935 and 1943. In 1938 her bestselling first novel, There’s no Turning Back, was banned by Mussolini for showing daily life among female students in Rome “who did not conform to fascist ethics”. She continued resisting, in her print journalism and in broadcasts for Radio Partigiana in Bari, under the pseudonym of “radio personality” Clorinda. Unlike fellow author and activist Natalia Ginzburg, de Céspedes was not a Jew, but she worked tirelessly to put her youth, strength and skills to fight fascism and antisemitism.

Jill Foulston’s translation forcefully captures the radical character of a formidable woman. Others have praised de Cespedes as a “subversive force”, and as an “an energetic angry genius”. To this reviewer, however, she qualifies in all-important ways as the Cuban-Italian Simone de Beauvoir.

Her Side of the Story

by Alba de Cespedes
(trans by Jill Foulston)

Pushkin Press, £20

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