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Nanni Balestrini’s “Tristano”: the love story with 100 trillion possible plotlines

Digital technology has finally made it possible for Tristano to be printed as the author intended. But should it be judged on its central device alone?

A fifteenth-century illustration of the legend of Tristan and Isolde.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

First published in Italy in 1966, it has only been in the last decade that digital technology has made it possible for Tristano to be printed as its author Nanni Balestrini intended. Each of its ten chapters has fifteen pairs of paragraphs, arranged differently by an algorithm in each published copy. These are numbered on their covers by Verso Books, who have issued four thousand of its possible 109,027,350,432,000 variations in English for the first time.

In his foreword, Umberto Eco – a member of Italy’s Neoavanguardia movement with Balestrini and others, founded in 1963 – suggests that “originality and creativity are nothing more than the chance handling of a combination”. Eco provides a potted history of the literary idea of infinite possibilities of letters and words, particularly fashionable during the seventeenth century. Eco suggests several ways to approach Tristano: by reading a single copy and treating it as “unique, unrepeatable and unchangeable”; or “considering it to be the best … possible” version; or by reading several and comparing the outcomes.

Eco doesn’t discuss post-war attempts to use modern printing techniques to allow readers to create their own variations of texts. B S Johnson’s famous “book in a box”, The Unfortunates, where the loose chapters (besides the first and last) could be read in any order, remains best known in Britain, but it was preceded by Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1(1962), with its 150 unbound pages aiming to demonstrate that what matters most in life stories is not the events themselves but their order. Saporta’s book recently became available as an app, which sends readers a page on demand; the appearance of Tristano in its intended form adds to the sense, explored in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011), that digital technology could radically change the way that authors construct texts and how readers receive them, and the relationship between the two.

Balestrini’s note explains that he first experimented with the “combining possibilities of an IBM calculator” in 1961 for Tape Mark I, where fragments of poetry were sequenced according to primitive computer algorithms. His use of the same method for Tristano has already generated considerable controversy – but it would be facile to judge it purely by the means of its construction. What of the text itself?

The story is very simple – it is based on the medieval tragedy of adulterous lovers Tristan and Isolde, rewritten numerous times since the twelfth century with differing details but the same structure, its familiarity giving Balestrini more licence to play with its formation. The opening chapters develop the central characters – confusingly, both called C – and their relationship, but important details will emerge at different times for each reader: in my copy, edition 10625, the man’s inability to handle money was revealed at the very end of chapter one, and my conception of his character and its likely development would almost certainly have been different if I’d learned this within the first few paragraphs.

The disjointed narrative puts greater focus on Balestrini’s poetic prose, which feels very much of its time: the detached observation of the nameless central characters and the uncertainty about who is narrating owes a considerable debt to nouveau roman pioneer Alain Robbe-Grillet, particularly his Jealousy (1957). There are many subtle nods to Jacques Prévert’s quietly heart-breaking poem Dejeuner du matin, and if I had not known that Balestrini was Italian, I would have assumed he was French: intertwining the failing relationship and the collapse of Resistance and revolutionary ideals, his style and tone frequently recall the ecstatic monologue used as a voiceover in French artist Gil J Wolman’s film L’Anti-concept (1952).

At points, Balestrini makes his disdain for story-telling conventions explicit, with mixed results – one paragraph in chapter five offers a forensic, Robbe-Grillet-style description of the surroundings, closing amusingly with “All this does not have very much to do with our story but it doesn’t matter”. Sometimes, this is overly didactic: we already know from Balestrini’s composition that “We are not obliged to read everything that it is possible to read. A book is endless books and each of them is a slightly different version of you.” At times, the text feels like it was not just arranged but written by a computer. Lines such as “Autism that is the conviction of being a superman who is not subject to the laws of society” could easily have come from RACTER, the English prose generator program that produced The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed in 1984, with empty aphorisms such as “My desire to incite myself in my dreaming is also a reflection of ambiguity”.

These are only occasional, and the emotional highs and lows of the story are all the more touching for being framed within Balestrini’s subtle, understated language. It’s sad that Tristano’s central device may lead critics to judge it by unfair standards, making the perfect the enemy of the interesting, or exploratory, as if any experiment that does not induce a total revolution of the form is worthless. Endless novels present fixed versions of events, and it’s baffling that those few to challenge this should attract opprobrium, as did Johnson in particular, purely for doing so – Tristano is particularly successful in raising the idea that the structures that authors choose are not always necessarily the best possible.

Although I’m not sure that Tristano makes its reader “the co-author” – surely that’s the algorithm – but it provokes plenty of thought about how to read, obliging people to form opinions after covering each chapter, rather than as they go along, and to think about the nature of the novel’s conclusion. I always linger over a final paragraph, re-reading it several times, feeling that it will cement a book’s meaning in my mind, but here, as throughout, Tristano raises more questions than it answers. Should an ending always be definitive? Why? And what does it mean if it isn’t?

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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