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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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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