Gothic architecture originated and flourished during the high and late medieval period, originating in 12th-century France and continuing into the 16 century. Cathedrals present the most imposing and familiar form of Gothic architecture, partly because Gothic style sought to stir strong human emotions.
Gothic cathedrals emphasize vertical space and light. They are recognizable for their pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses (external arches that prop up the outer walls). The most famous Gothic cathedrals include Notre Dame de Paris, Notre-Dame de Chartres, and Salisbury Cathedral.
A few pages onward (section 7 of Part Three, p. 108, see Bookmark below), Franz spends some time in the Old Church (Oude Kerk) of Amsterdam, and the narrator notes some of its Gothic elements.
Open city square in a European town dating from the Renaissance. “Piazza” is an Italian word, but Italian piazzas have their equivalents in Spain (“plaza”), Greece, Britain, and most other European countries.
The piazza offers a safe, open public space for citizens to congregate, stroll, and visit. Often, prominent public buildings such as the town hall will face the piazza, as well as sidewalk cafés and other storefronts.
This might refer either to the fact that Socrates employed a style of teaching that posed questions to explore issues without necessarily arriving at solid answers, or that very little about Socrates’ true beliefs or life may be established with certainty because nearly all we know about him has been conveyed by his student-advocates (Plato’s are presented as dramatic texts) and opponents, not in any writings by Socrates himself
This is a bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum.
A reference to the first and most famous adventure in Gulliver’s Travels (1725), by Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift. A classic of English (and indeed, world) literature, the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver in several “Remote Nations of the World” begins in Lilliput, a land of tiny people one-twelfth the size of humans.
This mural of Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians is on the wall of a toy store in Bremen, Germany.
Franz likens Sabina to Gulliver and himself and everyone in his world to Lilliputians: tiny in mental and imaginative stature in comparison with her.
A Christian religious holiday observed primarily by the Catholic Church, All Souls’ Day follows All Saints’ Day, or November 2 and November 1, respectively. All Souls’ Day is also known as the Feast of All Souls, and Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. In Spanish-speaking countries, its name is the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
The theological basis for the holiday is the doctrine that at least some of the souls of the faithful may not be fully purged of sin when they die, so they wait in Purgatory to achieve full sanctification and thereby entry to heaven. This process can be assisted by prayers from the living, so the latter are called to participate in Morning and Evening Prayer (Lauds and Vespers) on this day.
This 1859 painting, "The Day of the Dead," is by the French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905).
Here, the story probably refers to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, when brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and their rebel army overthrew the government of U.S.-backed general Fulgencio Batista after three years of armed fighting in the mountains of Cuba. Pictured are Raul Castro and Che Guevara in the Cuban mountains in 1958.
Pictured here is Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate, proclaiming the creation of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
Very little was known in the West about the government or conditions in the People’s Republic of China (such as an estimated 36 million deaths in the Great Famine of 1958-1961, or the political oppression of the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966) before Nixon’s trip there in 1972, so for a time in the 1960s it was trendy for Westerners who hated the culturally and commercially imperial policies of the United States to admire the Communist government of China.
First mention of Joseph Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, 1878-1953), General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death. A friend and colleague of Lenin, Stalin succeeded the architect of the Russian Revolution as leader of the Bolshevik government.
Stalin caused the disastrous Soviet famine of 1932-33 (in which an estimated 6-8 million people, mostly Ukrainians, starved to death), the Great Purge or Great Terror of 1936-38 (in which several million more were executed or imprisoned in the gulag as suspected enemies of the state), and of course the creation and expansion of 476 prison camps in the Gulag system (see Bookmark for page 252), which at its height held as many as 2.5 million political prisoners and in which nearly 2 million people died between 1930 and 1953.
Stendhal is the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle (1783-1842), a French writer who could be regarded as a romantic precursor and probable inspiration for Kundera. Regarded as one of the first practitioners of realism, he is best known for his novels The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, and for the book-length essay On Love.
Although Stendhal surfaces in Unbearable Lightness as little more than a passing reference at a party in which Franz’s wife Marie-Claude is depicted holding forth and tossing out dictatorial opinions (“No, no, you’re wrong! … Stendhal is a night author!”), he’s an appropriate touchstone in a novel about an inveterate womanizer (Tomas) because Stendhal himself was a dandy and a womanizer. To judge by his books, he was genuinely empathetic toward women, but also obsessive about his sexual conquests, which makes him very similar to Tomas.
This portrait of Stendhal, done in 1840 when he would have been 57, was painted by Johan Olaf Sodemark (1790-1848).
Also in common with Kundera, Stendhal was a serious fan of music, one of his favorites being his contemporary Rossini, who is mentioned on the next page of Unbearable Lightness.
Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) was an Italian composer known mostly for his 39 operas, especially “The Barber of Seville,” “The Thieving Magpie,” and “William Tell.” The song-like melodies of his scores led to the nickname “The Italian Mozart.”
The opening baritone aria from “The Barber of Seville” has been featured and parodied in Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, and other cartoons, in an episode of Seinfeld, and in many movies. The finale of the “William Tell Overture” became even more famous as the theme from the Lone Ranger radio and television shows, and thereafter used and parodied by everyone from Victor Borge and Bill Cosby’s go-karts routine to Spike Jones and “The Flintstones.”
Consecrated in 1306 by the bishop of Utrecht, the Oude Kerk is the oldest parish church in Amsterdam. It includes the largest wooden medieval vault in Europe, made of planks from Estonia that date from 1390 and that contribute to some of the finest acoustics on the continent. Rembrandt was a frequent visitor to this church and all his children were christened there.
The narrator of Unbearable Lightness spends several pages describing the church, and Sabina’s experience of the beauty of a priest’s chant and the congregation’s response in a village church back in Czechoslovakia, but it is not mentioned that many concerts by ensembles such as the BBC Singers and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields take place here as well.
In the church, Sabina stares at the bare stalls where wealthy burghers worship, and she thinks of “cows tied to the rings” who “gazed dreamily out of the windows” in castles that were nationalized and turned into cow sheds in Bohemia after the Communist coup. It isn’t hard to link that image of the cows to the whores across the street “who look like bored cats” on the preceding page, as well.
Oudekerksplein, the square surrounding the church, has a bronze relief of a hand caressing a female breast that was placed in the cobblestones one night by the unknown artist, and in 2007 a bronze statue named Belle to honor the prostitutes of the world was installed there. The inscription on the statue reads, "Respect sex workers all over the world."
Calvinism is a Reformed tradition of Christianity that originated with John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s. Though notable for a number of tenets such as predestination, total depravity, unconditional selection, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints, the reference here relates to Calvinism’s rejection of any practice of worship not explicitly approved in the New Testament.
Thus, driven by antipathy toward many of the religious practices of Roman Catholicism, Calvinists rejected musical instruments and much verbal content in the services of other sects. Many churches across Europe were vandalized, and emptied of their art and valuables, because of acquisitive greed, or hatred for the Catholic Church, or taken over by Calvinist congregations who simplified the decor for theological reasons (which is what the narrator of Unbearable Lightness is talking about).
The line in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 73 about old age, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” may refer to the many Catholic churches abandoned and vandalized in England under Queen Elizabeth, after Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church.
This is a reference to the Greek myth of the Twelve Labors of Hercules (the Roman form of the Greek demigod Heracles). The Fifth Labor was to clean the Augean Stables in one day. The Labors were tasks to be performed by Hercules as penance. Cleaning the stables of King Augeas (one of Jason’s Argonauts) was supposed to be both humiliating and impossible, since the cattle were immortal and produced an incredible amount of manure.
However, Heracles didn’t use a broom. He got around the challenge of the job by diverting the two rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the stables. It is odd that Kundera would choose the image of “Hercules’ broom” since there wasn’t one and he surely would know that, but perhaps this is meant to suggest the indistinctness and outright inaccuracy of Franz’s romantic notions.
This gilded bronze Roman statue of Hercules with the apples of the Hesperides dates from the 2nd century BCE and currently resides in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a novelist and short story writer born to middle-class Jewish parents in Prague, Bohemia. Author of The Trial, The Castle, and The Metamorphosis, most of his work was unfinished and published posthumously, and his reputation as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century also came after his death. Kafka had instructed his friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy all his writings after his death (which came at the age of 41 from tuberculosis), but Brod disobeyed Kafka and in fact told him before his death that he would do so.
Although Kafka may be Prague’s most famous son, he plays only a tiny role in Unbearable Lightness. Here, Franz recalls a formula set forth somewhere in Kafka’s diaries or letters that one must “live in truth.” Of course, that means something very different to Sabina.
French writer (1896-1966) best known as the principal founder of Surrealism, an aesthetic of surprise, startling juxtapositions, and non sequiturs, which he defined in 1924 as “pure psychic automatism.” Breton intended Surrealism as a truly revolutionary movement not only in the visual arts and literature, but political thought and philosophy as well.
The quotation referenced by Franz is from Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja: “I myself shall continue living in my glass house where you can always see who comes to call, where everything hanging from the the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed, under glass sheets, where who I am will sooner or later appear etched by a diamond.”
Kundera also refers to this Breton quote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the novel he published just before Unbearable Lightness. Breton was also the source of the title for Kundera’s novel Life is Elsewhere, which is a quote from French poet Arthur Rimbaud that Breton used as the final sentence of a 1924 surrealist manifesto.
This photo was taken in Mexico in 1938, and cropped from one that includes his companions from that era, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky (see Bookmark, page 99).
Famous burial ground in Paris created in 1824 from three farms. Many famous French intellectuals and artists are buried here, and there are monuments to police and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
Among the French luminaries buried in Montparnasse are Charles Beaudelaire, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Guy de Maupassant, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Also interred at Montparnasse are Russian chess champion Alexander Alekhine, Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett, Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, American Dada artist and photographer Man Ray, American actress Jean Seberg, and American author and philosopher Susan Sontag.
Don Juan is a legendary, fictional lover and seducer of women. In Italian his name is Don Giovanni. "Don Juan" is often used as a synonym for “womanizer.” Later in the book (section 10 of Part Five, page 201), the narrator distinguishes between "lyrical" and "epic" womanizers.
The first known written version of the character appears in a Spanish play published about 1630 and titled “The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest” by Tirso de Molina.
Among the best known versions of the story of Don Juan are Molière’s play “Don Juan, or the Feast with the Statue” (1665), Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” (1787), and Byron’s epic poem “Don Juan” (1821). The story has also inspired works by Pushkin, Kierkegaard, Shaw, and Camus … not to mention songs and albums by Buddy Holly, the Pet Shop Boys, and Joni Mitchell.
At left is a 1912 painting by Max Slevogt of the opera singer Francisco d’Andrade playing Mozart’s Don Giovanni, at the moment when he invites the statue of the dead Commendatore to dinner.
Don Juan is one-half of a dualism embodied by Tomas in this novel. After hearing of Tomas’s death in the country with Tereza, Sabina -- who knew him best as a Don Juan -- decides that Tomas “died as Tristan” (which is to say, romantically faithful to one woman; see Bookmark, page 22), “not as Don Juan.”