Poetry News

Programming a Prose Machine Like a Poem Machine: Rhizome Reviews Tristano

By Harriet Staff

07. Draper, Herbert James - Tristan And Isolde

This month, Verso Books published the "love story with infinite possibilities," Nanni Balestrini's 1966 novel Tristano, inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde. No copy is like another, as "each of the 10,000 copies ... contain different iterations of the same text." "When composing Tristano, Balestrini used a computer algorithm to shuffle the sentences of the ten paragraphs which comprise each of the ten chapters," writes Rhizome's Brendan C. Byrne, who starts his review with an epigraph from Stanislaw Lem: "In order to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the beginning—or at least a good piece of it." Outcomes:

The "plot" isn't really the point, but the most readable and pleasurable outcome of Balestrini's game, at least for #10750, are its accidental mini-narratives. Some examples:

This being done we hoisted jib and mainsail kept full and we start boldly out to sea. Twenty minutes later we climbed on board. Vomiting over the side leaning on the ropes. Dark blue of the panorama. Ten seconds.

A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not.

Languidly undulating surfaces lack of watercourses the frequent outcrops of rocks that emerge from the fine layer of red earth which nonetheless supports rich crops. The scar on her stomach was visible in the faint dusk light. I'm so happy you came. Let's try another position.

Each mini-narrative dissolves back into the overarching form, usually quite quickly, although #10750 features one which lasts as long as a single paragraph save one sentence. The frustration this generates highlights formless chaos as the pre-history of every narrative, as well as the unholy formal dance of writer and reader required to create meaning.

Other moments of coherence take the form of meta-commentary interspersed throughout, such as:

You could even start from another episode and obtain a slightly different story. Though the question is rather irrelevant.

The provisional nature of the assemblage of the materials from different sources not connected together by integration but by association.

The other possible interpretations are endless but at the moment this is the only reality that belongs to us.

Tristano is still, at least nominally, a novel, one where the voice and temporality can change not only every line but within every line. Thus, ascribing these gnomic pronouncements to some "authorial voice," or taking them to be "statements of intent" or "ironic self-criticism," would be inadvisable. It is tempting to compare Tristano to hypertext fiction, which seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence with Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories. And both do indeed seem to be interested in extracting and making visible the "rules" which govern modern and post-modern lit, breaking narrative down into its consituent elements. However, hypertext fictions places great value on "exploring" the possible sequences of these elements, while each iteration of Tristano is fixed, concrete. The computer has already explored; we merely have the path.

Read the full review at Rhizome.