‘“Thousands and Thousands of Butterflies with Sonorous Wings”: a Review of Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia’, by Ellena Savage


In Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, he writes of the potential for names to invoke a taboo, particularly for ‘compulsion neurotics’. One patient suffering from this ‘taboo disease’, he writes:

adopted the avoidance of writing down her name for fear that it might get into somebody’s hands who would thus come into possession of a piece of her personality. In her frenzied faithfulness, which she needed to protect herself against the temptations of her phantasy, she had created for herself the commandment, ‘not to give away anything of her personality’. To this belonged first of all her name, then by further application her hand-writing, so that she finally gave up writing.

Referring to this passage of Freud’s in Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante says:

when I read that story of illness it right away seemed wholly meaningful. What I choose to put outside myself can’t and shouldn’t become a magnet that sucks me up entirely.

Implicit in this neurotic condition, and Ferrante’s relation to it, is an untenable faith in a boundary distinguishing the self and the other. To avoid being possessed by another, conscious and deliberate acts of stratification are required: What I choose to put outside myself; she finally gave up writing.

But of course the outside and the inside are faces of the same coin. And this coin, to push a metaphor further than it needs to go, is made material in culture. A coin gains value only in its relation to currency; its function precedes the individual but is imposed on the human; the cold object’s provenance bears traces of countless others’ fingers. To attempt to secure a clear line of self-determination from this frantumaglia is a tall order. Yet there it is. The sincere wish for a boundary.

Frantumaglia is the name of Elena Ferrante’s latest book, which has been translated into English by Anne Goldstein. It is not a work of fiction, though it contains a great deal of fiction. Nor is it—considering the recent revelations about Ferrante’s creator’s ‘true identity’—nonfiction precisely, though letters, being documents that exist in the historical sense, are usually understood under the aegis of nonfiction. It is a 374-page collection of the author Elena Ferrante’s letters, interviews, speeches, and reflections; it is a ‘companion text’ for Ferrante readers.

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The term frantumaglia, she explains, is a Neapolitan word meaning “a jumble of fragments”. It is more than this, though. To explain the term, and with it the dimensions of this book, I will quote from the text:

The frantumaglia is to perceive with excruciating anguish the heterogeneous crowd from which we, living, raise our voice, and the heterogeneous crowd into which it is fated to vanish. I … represent it to myself mainly as a hum growing louder and a vortex-like fracturing of material living and dead: a swarm of bees approaching above the motionless treetops; the sudden eddy in a slow body of water. But it’s also the right word for what I’m convinced I saw as a child—or, anyway, during that time invented by adults that we call childhood—shortly before language entered me and instilled speech: a bright-colored explosion of sounds, thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings.

Reading this, I let out a painful sigh. It is clear to me that this passage expresses the core of female consciousness. I say consciousness which is ‘female’ only because it retaliates against the reductions of patriarchal thinking. It may well be human consciousness, but I am not in a position to describe what is human or not. Other terms that might capture it are queer consciousness, intersubjectivity, intertextuality, the primordial, the prenatal. The gooey. The frightening. I say female consciousness and I mean: the sense I hold in my body that every atom of my being is governed by the chaos of matter, a sense which, once acquired, makes it impossible to accept an ordered, reasonable view of things. And still, the wish for a boundary is sincere. Thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings quickly becomes a nightmare without language.

As this compendium makes very clear, however, Ferrante is not without language, nor is she interested in breaking with it. While she has a priestess-like connection to the other side of reason, Ferrante does not write from a prenatal morass. To the contrary, she is ferociously meticulous, exacting, and direct. Her letters to the director Mario Martone, who in 1994 began adapting the 1992 novel Troubling Love, exhibit an incredible level of care and connection to the subtleties of her text. This care becomes clear, too, in several of the more caustic interviews republished in the volume, where Ferrante makes no secret of her distaste for lazy journalism and a shallow media culture. When one Italian journalist, whose questions are all focussed on the author’s identity asks her whether she finds this phenomenon disturbing, Ferrante responds:

Yes, it disturbs me. But it also seems to me the proof that the media care little or nothing about literature in itself. Let’s take these questions of yours: I’ve published a book, but, despite knowing that I would answer in very general terms, you have focused the whole interview on the theme of my identity.

Readers of her novels will recognise this edge; indeed, it is precisely her capacity for cruelty, for helping us locate the violence inert in everyday life (particularly within the bourgeois social strata) that qualifies Ferrante for her readers’ devotion. Through her violence we, her readers, become vital and vigilant creatures.

In a seventy-page response to questions asked by the editors of a journal called Indice, Ferrante tells the story of how she came to understand her capacity for violence in language. Little Elena is seven, and she wants to kill her irritating younger sister. When the girl interrupts her older sisters’ game for the umpteenth time, Elena says: “We need a rope, there’s one in the storeroom.” The little sister makes a dash for the storeroom. “I was the child,” writes Ferrante, “who had been able to find the sentence that would send the little girl to her death without taking her there in person.”

The identification I feel with Ferrante’s texts, and which I share with many hundreds of thousands of women globally, is the cultural phenomenon that enables a book such as Frantumaglia to be published. Without the keynotes, the live-to-air radio interviews, the photographs of the author in her youth, the marital status updates, the path-to-fame narrative, the reader is left with only, and significantly, the pages she has written. But a volume like Frantumaglia insists that there is much, much more to books than their flesh and blood.

Freud’s patient, who cannot write her name for fear her identity will be taken up and consumed by another, forces us to confront that a self exists beyond our fleshy boundaries, over which we have no control. The facts of our material biographies are largely irrelevant when it comes to how others understand and consume us. When we exist in public, we are shadows on the walls of other people’s caves. Similarly, the author’s absence, the absence of the body writing, from the publishing industrial complex allows us to recognise the life that books have beyond being written and read. Ferrante names this life the “third book”: “I didn’t actually write it, my readers haven’t actually read it, but it’s there. It’s the book that is created in the relationship between life, writing, and reading.” This third book’s form, I suspect, is something akin to frantumaglia.

Ellena Savage is a writer from Melbourne. Her essays, stories and poems have been published widely.