:: Article


By Jeanne Graff.



Cover for VZSZHHZZ by Jeanne Graff, published by Semiotext(e)


Excerpted from Vzszhhzz, a novel published by Semiotext(e).




The train has just crossed the border. I remember images of the ride twenty years ago, the LED lighting has just been installed in the Swiss wagons and on the train station’s information signs didn’t yet exist in Italy then; after Lake Geneva is Lake Maggiore, on the other side of the Alps, and today there are strikes in Italy so I’m hoping the train will arrive at Milano Centrale, that I will be able to attend this dinner and go home the next day. If I have understood correctly, the strikes are only stopping the regional trains and not the international lines. I’m starting to feel much better when I travel than when I’m at home, it has become the normal state. Not to move and to stay home, that’s what is strange now. The body has simply gotten used to being in movement.


Impossible to set myself at the right hour last time I came back from the United States. I left my watch set to New York time for weeks and was falling asleep at impossible hours. It has become complicated to stay more than three days in the same place; every day is a different city – or it is the same city speaking different languages, a new city forming over the old ones – you don’t really know anymore. Constantly travelling is like ski touring every day: you have to keep checking your gear to make sure you have everything you need, that you didn’t forget anything – most important is the phone.


Sometimes you check twenty times a day to make sure if it is indeed in your pocket. You develop the skill of packing your suitcase in your head at any time of the day or night. You mentally scroll through your wardrobe, then compose outfit combinations following the genre and number of events you will have to attend. From fifteen days and up to one month, you have enough items to make a tour and the suitcase stays the same. The problem is crossing between seasons during the same trip, then it becomes disruptive to think of two moments of the year at the same time, to imagine your entire wardrobe simultaneously and without crossfading. It’s like layering two years on top of each other, the past one and the one that’s coming.


When I go to Milan by train, I always think of Malou. She was a writer and a translator, and we used to travel this way together in the 80’s-90s, and in the 00s too. We were visiting family, Bruno and her cousin Jacqueline; they grew up like sisters in the 30s. Malou used to tell me that they would “hop their way to school,” imitating the maimed, limping war casualties they were seeing everywhere. When Jacqueline died Bruno started to lose his mind: she was the love of his life, they did everything together. In the morning he was still okay, but at night he would mistake me for my mother. His mother used to visit him from Southern Italy – he would tell this story ten times a day – coming by train with live chickens in cages, which she would store on the balcony and behead for dinner, one after another according to the number of guests. It was delicious. Today this would be forbidden by the health department. In the taxi with Massimiliano, he introduces me to Alberto. I tell them the story of Malou’s friend, an editor who decides one day to write his own book. He’s in his house in Venice, goes out to buy fancy paper, a feather pen and ink, and when he gets back home he writes his name on the first page, then goes out again to take a walk and falls down dead. Alberto tells me I’m speaking about his grandfather.


My mother spoke Swiss German to me until I was five years old but I’ve forgotten everything. I could speak Italian but it’s a bit remote in my head, I can’t really find the words anymore. I’m listening to Liscio, who’s sitting next to me at this dinner, and when he speaks Italian I understand everything. He explains that he buys back businesses to help them develop, mostly by exporting themselves. Those enterprises are active in industry, they have a high expansion potential but no vision for that. Most of them are family businesses and have this potential but they just don’t even think about it! So Liscio helps them to enlarge their thoughts. He tries whenever possible to keep the same employees in their jobs, as well as the management, which is generally more efficient but not always. Then he adds his knowledge like an additional layer, like frosting on a cake. His own company has seven thousand employees around the world. For the ones he purchases he provides the contacts as well as the knowledge they need so they can increasing their market shares by transplanting somewhere else – usually in India and China – depending on what they produce: you have to find the right product for the right place, a product that translates from one culture to another. This would have interested Malou. Then he asks me in English: “So who are you? What’s your essence? What’s your flavor?”


Coming back from Vietnam, Massimiliano wakes up in the middle of the night and falls off his bed. He took a dive that almost killed him. He’d simply forgotten where he was after having slept in a dozen of places over a dozen days, or maybe it was a hallucination due to jetlag sleep which can sometimes create a kind of fever, like a really deep sleep in the afternoon, where it’s difficult to distinguish reality from dream.


Born in Bergamo, he now lives between New York and Milan. His work takes him to Hô Chi Minh City and Poland, and he’s just decided to rent another flat in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he’s moved his office into a church which is split in two by a wall, creating two mirrored spaces with similar dimensions: one for the cloistered nuns, the other for the public. Behind the church there was once an adjoining convent which disappeared two hundred years ago to make room for buildings. The sisters used to travel between the convent and the church several times a day, their only movements consisting of these back-and-forth walks.


They went back and forth from the convent to the church to attend the mass on the other side of the wall. Cloistered, observing through the iron bars of a small window behind the altar, all they could see were the priest’s raised hands as he presented the host during the Eucharist. Upon entering the convent, the young women added the prefix “angelic” to their surname and they had to be silent most of the time. The second half of the church, explains Massimiliano, will remain open to the public: half office, half exhibition space. He wanted to build a structure that didn’t damage the original building and was resistant to earthquakes, a kind of boat permanently parked inside the church. The top floor pitches slightly as it spans the wall that splits the church in two, and from up here you can overlook the entire public half. You feel like a captured bird, zooming in on murals painted by the Fratelli Campi four hundred years ago, a slight vertigo feeling.


The church was deconsecrated two hundreds years ago. It still belongs to the Vatican, who is Massimiliano’s landlord. Signing the contract took seven months to finalize: seven months compared to eternity is not that long. Around 1550, the countess Ludovica Torelli di Guastalla founded the Order of Angelic Sisters, who inhabited the adjoining convent of the Chiesa di San Paolo Converso. It seems she built this place in order to transgress her own rules. Women born in the wrong position were usually placed in a convent against their will so as not to divide the family’s fortune. It was a jail made for women you didn’t know what to do with. All contacts with the outside was forbidden. The countess’s changes consisted in establishing some sort of visiting hours, thereby deregulating love relationships: not a total lock up, offering partial captivity.


Carissa started to have a claustrophobic crisis a year ago. In the subway at rush hour, on her way to the doctor, the train stopped between two stations. Since then she always takes a pill with her, a tranquilizer. For a year she’s managed to get along without the pill but she just took one this afternoon when the subway stopped inside a tunnel. It only lasted a minute but for her it was an eternity.


The Northern Line in London is the worst one. You access it by going down a series of four, five, six escalators. It’s possible to find alternative paths to avoid this line, but when you don’t have a choice you have to take a deep breath and just go. What’s particularly horrible, worse than the endlessly swallowing escalators beneath the city, is the train’s architecture. This unbearably thin tube becomes a nightmare when it’s crowded. One day Stefan tells me that you shouldn’t worry, because in case of a problem, there’s always a way out the train: you have to push back the doors with your arms very forcefully and walk along the tracks. This may sometimes be the case, but not on the Northern Line.


With Stefan in Wakefield passing by the jail – for life sentences only – we hear prisoners from the outside, and we think about what Anne would say if she were with us now: “If you don’t want to have problems, avoid eye contact.” Separated from the men, the Angelic Sisters were locked up in silence within the adjoining convent of La Chiesa di San Paolo Converso, the church of Saint- Paul the converted. The “conversion” is the most difficult position in ski touring because you have to transfer your entire weight from one leg to the other and it’s just at that moment that you can lose your balance and fall into the void.


I’m discovering techniques to lessen the crises that threaten to emerge on various occasions: tunnels, subways, planes. The crisis never blows up but the body remembers. The first crisis, some years ago in a minaret in India, the women were given a kind of ugly shapeless coat or apron which we had to wear to cover ourselves: the spiral staircase suddenly seemed endless to me. You always have to be very careful because the crisis can appear when you least expect it. Recently I was a bit annoyed because there were no more aisle seats and the steward made me wait near the door while he found a free seat. I had just bumped into Adam at the Berlin airport. We passed through the security check together and he had his computer controlled, as always, supposedly a random search but we all knew exactly why. Switzerland had just been voting on a new law in order to increase the emigration restrictions and Adam had been thinking seriously about adopting a second nationality: it’s a good way to avoid problems and systematic controls. Our planes were taking off three minutes apart, the doors were side by side and we could see each other in the distance on the tarmac before boarding: he was going to Basel, I was going to Paris.


Last week with Anne in New York, we went to Gavin’s on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Always in different places, always in the same city, Uptown, Downtown, Eastside and Westside. An opening and then: the dinner. Apparently he plays an important role, he’s feeding us. The food always tastes pretty good, a bit the same but not quite, depending on the target audience, the average age and the neighborhood. So Uptown was really fancy, Downtown West more party and young but a bit linked to the past and faded, which is why the new East space has just opened, like a newborn little brother. Time travel across two decades, traveling through a world that always tastes a bit the same. It’s just boring enough to be reassuring. You feel good and at home, but a bit watched. Everybody notices where you sit, with whom you speak. We spent a really nice evening there on Saturday with Loren. Loren’s laugh sounds exactly the same as Olivia’s. So every time Loren is laughing – and she is laughing all the time – I think for a second that Olivia is sitting next to me. It’s really important to leave at the right time, quite early because you’re busy. So on Sunday Anne and I drive to Boston.


Back from Boston, we arrive at Ericka’s loft where we’re staying, right next to the Manhattan Detention Complex. You access the place through a series of three long stairways painted green, the upper floors are sinking toward the inside of the building so you have to watch your steps carefully and focus in order to not lose your balance. It’s also possible to take the elevator around the corner: you have to stop on the fourth floor, which is in fact the second, climb some stairs in order to arrive at the third, but first you have to walk two blocks through the inside of the building, follow a corridor, an endless, zigzag labyrinth covered in grey carpet. When the grey carpet ends to become green painted wood, you climb one last stairway, then pass through two doors and arrive at the door of the loft. It’s huge, and a cube has been built inside to make a small room at the end. Three hundred square meters and only two windows: the first one on the left near the entrance opens onto an airshaft and doesn’t really let any light in, the second one is at the very end of the space. All day long, the loft remains in darkness; after a few days, the eyes get used to it. You have to force yourself into a precise daily rhythm, and most of all go out every morning as soon as you wake up so the body understands it’s daytime. The light from outside is dazzling after forty-eight hours inside. After thirty years, the entire outside world must dazzle you coming out of this black box.


Construction of the Simplon Tunnel started in 1898, it was inaugurated in 1906, today you cross it in twenty minutes. Watching out the windows – you can’t open them anymore – you see that the mountain’s rock has been dug by hand with picks. Still complicated to handle: the conditions at the center of the mountain, the heat, and rock so dense that it suddenly becomes sand as soon as you try to dig it, it melts into itself, becomes almost liquid. It took eight years to dig twenty kilometers.


The train comes out of the tunnel creating a weird sensibility to the colors at nightfall, when the public lighting competes with the daylight. I have some difficulty seeing properly, sitting in the wagon lit by LED lights while gazing at the sunset on Lake Maggiore while an advertisement for the World Expo 2015 scrolls simultaneously on about fifty screens on the wagon’s ceiling. My vision blurs for a few minutes: “Y aura-t-il encore des fruits et des légumes dans 40 ans? Parmigiano o Sbrinz? E questo il dilemma! 9 Milliarden Menschen in 2050, können wir alle ernähren? Combattere contro le sprechi alimentari! Si, ma come? In the expo the most amazing pavilions! Italy, China, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Estonia, Chile, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, Rice, Spices, Cocoa, Cereals & tubers, Coffee, Legumes & fruits, Arid zones, Bio mediterraneum islands & sea. The thematic pavilions! Future food district, Pavilion zero, Biodiversity’s park, Children’s park, Arts & Foods!”


Having dinner at the Triennale, Massimiliano is cooking Pho. He brought the ingredients a few days ago on his way back from Vietnam. The building was built in 1933, Malou went there as a child with Jacqueline, the fascist architecture and the name Triennale remained. A building named “every three years.” Massimiliano was born on December 6th, the same day as Malou, during the dinner, he explains that the Milan Cathedral was built with marble from a single mountain. The mountain is near Lake Maggiore, you could certainly see it from the train, and today it’s in the center of Milan, its roof covered with hundreds of marble figures who watch over the city and must see the planes from a little closer up.


You don’t really think about the people in planes. It was strange to imagine Adam in the plane which I could see on the runway taking off just before mine, I was following it with my eyes for few minutes. Passing somebody you know in a car on the highway: twice this has happened. In the subway it happens more often. Once, Marie was sitting next to me on the same bench, and after two minutes we turned to each other and jumped.


Ski touring with Olivia and Mai-Thu in the Alps, we arrive at the top of a mountain overlooking the entire valley. We can see Lake Geneva; Lake Maggiore must be a bit further off. The weather changes really suddenly at this altitude so we have to hurry back down before the snow gets too soft. Olivia has been mountaineering for years, it allows her to clear her head: always mind your center of balance and move forward very slowly while staying focused. Like Massimiliano, she enjoys high altitudes.


At the Tea Room Chez Quartier one afternoon with John and Mai-Thu: she is about to take her driver’s license exam and tells us she will practice driving tonight. John says she’s right, that it’s a good idea to practice on the moon. The acoustics are pretty bad, the neighbors to the right and left are very loud, when Mai- Thu repeats her sentence a second time we understand that flying breads are driving cars in apesanteur de lune. How was it before? In the plane, on the last day of the year, I had just come down from the Alps, which I saw once again after take-off. Passing over the mountain range, the plane continuing its ascent, I saw Australia, Japan, Vietnam, India, all of Asia, Africa, then Europe changing years on my screen. I think about John and Mai-Thu and try to see the flying breads from the porthole. I look around me and can’t help seeing the passengers as different kinds of bread: French baguettes, German Vollkornbrot, Swiss rye bread, New Yorker bagels, Jewish braids.


John has always worn his hair in a long braid which he ties in two places, at the top and the bottom. He hasn’t cut his hair for several decades. He says he once went diving in the sea with Olivier whose long grey beard, floating weightless in the water, surrounded him like jellyfish tentacles. John’s braid was floating too. They are now waiting in a hotel lobby for Genesis before going out to dinner. Genesis has long blond hair and walks with a stick from Benin. The Pandrogyne project, a fusion between Genesis and Lady Jay, began a few years ago: they wanted to become one person. After several operations, the face and body have completely changed. Genesis’s old friends say “he” when they talk about him, more recent friends say “she” when they talk about her, Genesis says “us” instead of I.


Nicolas is talking with Mai-Thu about a trip in India at two thousands meters’ altitude in a house perched on a mountaintop. It has been snowing all night and the village has been cut off from the world for two days. She notices that Corinna Bille once lived in a chalet not so far away, about a hundred years ago. He checks his phone for some good addresses: the problem today is that when you plan your trip too much, you have the feeling that you’ve already done it. In India it was like this, you’ve already seen everything in advance in photos, and when you arrive you recognize the hotel, the restaurant, and like a regular you ask for the table at the far left corner of the room because you already know it’s the best one.



Composed between destinations, in airplanes, trains, museums, and bars over three years, Jeanne Graff’s Vzszhhzz captures the slight intersections of a loose group of artists and lawyers, restaurateurs, philosophers, wine-makers and boxers whose lives are conducted almost entirely in a second language. A loose chronicle masquerading as a novel, Vszhhzz – like Michèle Bernstein’s All The King’s Horses, the Bernadette Corporation’s Reena Spaulings, and Natasha Stagg’s Surveys – couches Graff’s sharp observations in a laconic and ambient style. By not saying too much, Vzszhhzz says everything about the relation to time, cities, weather and smog that has become the lingua franca of a creative and transient life.

“There’s an art of writing amidst the energies and languages of others, and Graff’s ear for existential specificity finds momentum in even the most glancing encounters. Always on the move, Graff’s phototropic texts incline toward human heat, hallucinating characters upon contact” – John Kelsey

To read an interview with Jeanne Graff by Juliana Huxtable click here.



Writer and curator Jeanne Graff was born in Lausanne, Switzerland and lives in New York. She is a columnist for May Revue (Paris), works in a vineyard, and teaches at HEAD art school in Geneva. In 2014, Graff founded 186f Kepler, an art space without walls. She has organised numerous international exhibitions, and performs with her band Solar Lice. Graff recently completed a writing residency at Villa Noailles in Hyeres, France.



First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 29th, 2018.