In his imagination his whole existence was a mass of unrelated fragments. Each fragment was single and complete, and whatever else stood next to it in reality and was joined to it was a matter of indifference to him and might just as well not have existed at all.

—Friedrich Schlegel, Lucinde

Tristano, the most recently translated book by the Italian poet and novelist Nanni Balestrini may come as a surprise to those who know him through his two previously translated works of fiction, The Unseen and Sandokan. Obdurately modernist in form, with a paradoxical approach to constructing an expressly textual surface by a rigorous adherence to oral discourse, those two books are at the same time models of how to use documentary realism in fiction. Originally published in Milan in 1966, Tristano, Balestrini’s first novel — I know that’s what it is because it says so right there in the subtitle — is something else altogether. Yes, it’s also a documentary of a sort, rather than a product of the imagination — but in contrast to The Unseen, which passionately reconstructs the worldview of the militant autonomisti of the 1970s, or Sandokan, which anatomizes the hold of the camorra on a town in southern Italy, Tristano keeps any reference to the real world at a much greater distance. Still, what Balestrini once told Roberto Saviano in a discussion of Sandokan already seems true enough of Tristano, written nearly four decades earlier: “I’m interested in collective stories that polarize a significant aspect of our present. I’m interested in utilizing choral languages that act out exemplary situations in our society — and that as a result can function as a moral and political accusation, which however I leave to the reader to extract.”

Tristano is choral language with a vengeance. As later would be the case with some of the products of language poetry, flarf, and conceptual poetry, it is writing that appears to emerge not from any individual “I” but rather to have been extracted from the discursive atmosphere of the world at large; it has been constructed from a repertoire of sentences culled from a variety of sources, from (it seems) a photography manual to a treatise on cave art to, perhaps most importantly since this is what gives it much of its elusive tinge of narrative, a romance novel — a compendium of unrelated fragments that nevertheless add up to an abstract collective portrait of its time and place, or (as the first Italian edition would have it) “a ‘political’ story of young people who’ve grown up after the Resistance.”

More than a decade before Ketjak, then, everything crucial to what Ron Silliman dubbed the “new sentence” was already in place in Tristano. In Bob Perelman’s summary, “A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences. This is on the immediate formal level. From a larger perspective, the new sentence arises out of an attempt to redefine genres; the tension between parataxis and narrative is basic.” In fact, simply because it has been framed as a novel, this tension with narrative is even more fraught in Tristano than it is in most works of the language poets. “It’s all just a story of sentences.” “There is no meaning but something like a dream of meaning.” And yet, detached from their former contexts, these sentences are allowed to resonate. Gestures are tinged with pathos; isolated images hang there like close-ups in an Antonioni move. “She slowly crossed the room in C’s direction. Her face was flushed almost triumphant. Biting her lower lip. Thinking about the scene that has just taken place.” “The next day a pale sun was illuminating the snowclad landscape. The shells in the drawer had vanished.”

But there is a further twist that makes Balestrini as much a forerunner of the conceptual poets of recent years as he is of the language poets a generation before. Tristano is not so much a novel as a meta-novel. Each copy is individually numbered on the cover (mine is 10,044) to express the fact that each book is different, since the one hundred pairs of paragraphs that make it up occur in a randomly different order in each copy. (Strangely, the book’s back copy says that each of the book’s ten chapters contains fifteen pairs of paragraphs, but in fact each chapter is made up of ten pairs.) In an introductory note, Balestrini explains that in 1966 the technology did not exist to realize this idea, and so he compromised then and published a single realization of the work (in which, for some reason, rather than ten pairs of paragraphs, the chapters are made up of ten paragraphs each twice as long as in the current version), but in the meantime, the advent of digital printing has made it practicable. (Of course, another approach would have been to print each pair of paragraphs on one side of a single sheet and place them all in box, rather than binding them together, allowing each reading to determine a new order for the text without “freezing” any of those possible versions into a single object; in fact, at just about the same time that Tristano was first published, John Barth was evoking, in his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” of 1967, “Somebody-or-other’s unbound, unpaginated, randomly assembled novel-in-a-box.” And today an even more up-to-date technology ought to allow for a version that would be read on an electronic device for which a new ordering could be generated automatically every time the application is opened, perhaps a better way to present a book with no beginning and no end — all middle.)

Does Tristano’s newly achieved randomization have any interesting implication that it lacked in 1966, when every copy of the book was identical? It’s certainly fun to think about, but one result is that that tension between construction and narrative becomes greatly relaxed. Somehow or other, in making the first edition, Balestrini (or someone on his behalf) came to some decision about the order in which the book’s sentences would occur; and it was impossible for the reader not to have this in mind, so that, even though the book clearly has no story that’s going anywhere, no characters with any dimensionality — to underline this, all proper names of people (except in the title, which is almost an anagram of the author’s name) and most proper names of places are substituted with the letter C, which sometimes gives rise to funny sentences like “In the month of July C went on a trip up the river on the ship as far as C and on his return he decided to abandon C” — there was still a residual what’s-going-to-happen-next-ness to the reading of it. It had a sense of the narrative of authorial decisions rather than of characters’ actions, the feeling (however illusory) that from the opening “Be’ ti ci vuole tanto tempo” (“Well for that you’ll need a lot of time”) to the closing “A che pensi” (“What are you thinking” — or as I might prefer to take the liberty of rendering it, “A penny for your thoughts”) some intention has unfolded. The lack of this makes it hard for the book to sustain a reader’s attention even across the relatively short span of one hundred pages of text (stretched to 120 by the blank pages inserted between chapters). It threatens to become a conceptual text in the most dissatisfying sense, that is, one that is more interesting to imagine than to read. Reading necessarily has a linear and teleological aspect, even though that’s not the whole story, and without this the hints of narrative become a matter of indifference. And isn’t it curious how a proponent of literary avant-gardism, as Balestrini, one of the group who in 1961 proudly called themselves I novissimi (the very newest), was at the time — those who advocate something like progress in aesthetics, the idea that one form of writing might make another obsolete — is capable of producing a text that, internally, abolishes progress?

That’s a shame because, page by page or, rather, sentence by sentence, Tristano is a compelling read. Partly this is because of the way, within each paragraph, Balestrini has managed to engineer a text that keeps leading you on and yet escapes you: “When I came back I saw C going down the meadow toward the lake. I tried to follow him but he was reading too fast.” (You could say I like the book better as proto-Language rather than proto-conceptualist.) But it also has to do with the fact that there is a remaining level of intrigue at work—no longer a narrative of characters or even of the author but of one’s own reading. For sooner or later, as you read, you begin to notice some sentences repeating; and once you start noticing this, you inevitably keep your eye out for those repetitions, and then start noticing more and more of them. Then you start to think you’ve noticed repetitions that you’re not sure really are such. Eventually you start to wonder: Does every sentence in the book occur twice (even if not once as tragedy, once as farce)? The text itself seems to imply as much — “I’ve already read this somewhere,” it says somewhere, and also “Every phase was repeated twice at a distance of time” — but are these false clues? Settling the issue would either require a digital version with a search function or else multiple readings with pen and paper at the ready—and a dangerous level of obsessiveness. “It is more and more difficult to find a beating heart behind the page,” one reads, and yet there is one beating somewhere in front of it. Still, although there are now supposed to be one hundred trillion potential versions of Tristano, I wish I could get my hands on the one that happens to coincide with the one published in Italian nearly fifty years ago.

Tristano by Nanni Balestrini (Verso, 2014) is published and available from Verso Books.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016) and a collection...

4 replies on “A Story of Sentences: Nanni Balestrini’s Ever-Changing Novel”

    1. hi, i’m using tristano as a related text for high school english but i was just wondering whether or not it would be considered a modernist text?? even though it’s written well after the war, i thought due to the style it could still be classified as part of modernism. please let me know!! – anniek.

      1. I don’t know what your definition of modernism is! In my view the postwar neo-avantgardes are not postmodernist, but that’s arguable, I know.

        1. Well we’ve been studying modernism as being 1890s-1950s, but some texts have been a little outside of that time frame. Mainly we’ve looked at Woolf, Hemingway, and general themes of fragmentation, loss of cohesive writing styles, stream of consciousness, etc. I personally think it fits in with that because of the way the novel is shuffled, but my english teacher wants a second opinion, and there’s unfortunately not much written on it… It’s a shame – it’s a difficult read, but the concept makes up for it in my opinion!

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