In the early 1960s, around the time that Raymond Queneau was working on his choose-your-own-sonnet sequence, Cent mille milliards de poèmes, and Marc Saporta on Composition No. 1, a looseleaf novel whose pages can be read in any order, Nanni Balestrini produced Tape Mark I, a series of sentence fragments arranged into verse sequences by a computer algorithm. A few of the many possible variations were published in 1961. Then, in 1966, Balestrini’s combinatorial novel Tristano appeared. Or, rather, one of the 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions of it did. Unlike Queneau or Saporta’s work, Tristano was an unrealisable project. According to Balestrini’s scheme, the novel is made up of ten chapters, which can appear in any order. Each chapter consists of twenty out of a possible thirty paragraphs (so each copy of the novel contains two-thirds of the total text), shuffled to appear in random order. There must be more constraints than this, otherwise the number of possible versions would be far greater than 109 trillion, but I don’t know what they are. Balestrini has said there are only the two rules. Citing the magic number in his excitable introduction to a new edition of the novel, published in Italian in 2007 and in an English translation this year (Verso, £14.99), Umberto Eco resorts to argumentum ab auctoritate: ‘Programmers say’.
The new edition, in some senses a first edition, or a whole series of first editions, has been made possible by advances – or at any rate changes – in technology. The rise of print-on-demand publishing means that it’s now feasible to print a single copy of a book. So every copy of the new edition of Tristano is unique (roughly 0.0000000001 per cent of possible versions are in print). I have number 5121 in Italian, and number 10,603 in Mike Harakis’s English, the one not quite a translation of the other, or perhaps a translation in even more senses than usual. The variations printed in Italian are not replicated in English; the Verso books pick up the series at number 10,000. Chapter 10 in copy no. 10,603 corresponds to Chapter 8 in copy no. 5121. They have ten paragraphs in common. So I happen to have all 30 paragraphs of that chapter, distributed across two books in a completely different order in each.
As for the sentences, they are culled from such anti-literary sources as photography manuals, atlases, pulp romances, newspapers and guidebooks (the reviewer in the New Statesman who praised Balestrini’s ‘subtle, understated language’ was presumably in on the joke). Every sentence appears twice, often in quite different contexts; the repetitions help to stitch the text together. Punctuation is kept to a minimum: there are no commas or quotation marks. Most proper nouns are replaced by the letter C, the mathematical symbol for an arbitrary or unspecified constant (‘A debate about whether C’s identity should be revealed follows’). Not only does the register of the language change from one sentence to the next, but the narrative, such as it is, shifts between tenses and between the first, second and third person. Here’s a typical passage:
The day passed uneventfully after the trip to the cave and lunch by the seaside. It looks like a very complicated story but with a little patience you manage to unravel the problem. In the film he’s dying under a tree and she walks off. The question is not so much the story itself but rather what effects it might produce what developments it might have what dynamics it might set in motion. The perpetual mobility of a desire of a dream without time or space.
Images recur: pink oleanders, seaside hotels, half-empty bottles, full ashtrays, empty chests, descriptions of cave paintings juxtaposed with naked lovers lying on beds in seaside hotels. As the title implies, the novel is a kind of love story, though the inconclusive, inconsequential affairs it gestures towards describing are a long way from Arthurian romance. As the novel puts it at one point (or rather two), ‘there is no meaning but something like a dream of meaning.’
Snatches of self-reflexive commentary are scattered throughout:
The sentences not only undergo the normal deprivation of their intrinsic value and communication capacity but acquire acceleration and a centripetal and centrifugal force at the same time. It’s obvious that the story couldn’t go on like this. It’s all just a story of sentences.
Without any sign of organisation or notions of the beginning or end of a logical development.
In the absence of signs of organisation it’s quite hard to read the book from beginning to end. Especially if you have two copies. I found myself flicking through and between my Italian and English editions, comparing beginnings and endings, trying to find corresponding paragraphs. And this, too, Balestrini anticipates: ‘I reopen the book at page 76. It’s very cold this evening.’ I reopen the books at page 76: ‘Do you see something? Yes’ (Italian); ‘Everything is false from here on’ (English).
Eco says that ‘by exercising their creativity’, Balestrini’s readers ‘become co-authors (or maybe the sole authors)’. This critical commonplace is, on the face of it, less true for Tristano than it is for, say, Queneau’s sonnet sequence or Saporta’s looseleaf novel. But one way in which Balestrini’s readers are able – not to say compelled – to write the novel themselves is by imposing a narrative on the text. It’s something you can’t – or at least I can’t – help trying to do, even though you know it’s impossible. One of the more ironic self-referential sentences is: ‘Going forward it becomes more and more gripping.’ This can’t be true, because there’s no linear momentum. But the overall effect, chapter by chapter, can be mesmerising. There is no meaning but something like a dream of meaning. And there’s something like forgiveness, too, for struggling readers with an old-fashioned weakness for story, hankering after a plot: ‘He did not manage to read to the end. I’d like a drink.’