Page 26. " Dubcek "

Alexander Dubček ("DOOB-check") was a Slovak politician and briefly the leader of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1968-69. He tried to institute what he called “socialism with a human face,” including democratic reforms such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement, and the potential for a multi-party government.

This brief period of liberalization became known as the “Prague Spring,” and lasted from January to August of 1968, but ended suddenly with the invasion by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies -- Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland. Somewhere between 175,000 and 500,000 troops entered the country. The invasion was swift and total: 500 Czechoslovaks were wounded and 108 killed.

During the period that followed, known officially as “normalization,” the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Gustáv Husák, replaced Dubček, became president, and reversed all Dubček’s reforms.

In section 27 of Part Two (page 75), Tereza is likened to Dubček, and to occupied Czechoslovakia, in her romantic enslavement to Tomas.

Page 28. " black bowler hat "


Olga Petrova in a bowler
Public DomainOlga Petrova in a bowler

A bowler, also known as a coke hat, derby, or billycock, is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown. It was first designed in 1849 by London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler to answer an order from Lock and Co. on behalf of a customer who was seeking a hat that would protect his gamekeepers’ heads from low-lying branches while riding on horseback.

Contrary to popular belief, bowlers were the most popular headgear in the American West, not the famed “cowboy hat” from movies, which led American journalist and historian Lucius Beebe dubbed the bowler “the hat that won the West.”

A bowler and cane were signature clothing props for Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character (the two items sold for $150,000 in 1987) -- and the narrator explicitly notes the Chaplin connection later (see Bookmark, page 64).

Bowlers also turn up so often in the paintings of Belgian surrealist René Magritte that they could be termed a signature of that artist -- a connection to Sabina so apropos that it probably occurred to Kundera. (The cover design by Mary Schuck for the 1999 HarperPerennial Modern Classics edition of Unbearable Lightness depicts a bowler floating in the air before a Prague cityscape, which explicitly recalls various Magritte paintings.)

Pictured here in a 1915 poster is "Olga Petrova," the American stage name of British-born silent-film actress Muriel Harding), sporting a bowler.

This is the first mention of Sabina’s signature hat. It will turn up again when Tereza visits Sabina (second 21 of Part Two; page 64 in this edition), and its significance is discussed in greater detail when Franz encounters it, in section 2 of Part Three (pages 86-88). His inability to understand and appreciate the hat is symptomatic of the many misunderstandings and differences in their relationship (in contrast with Sabina's erotic friendship with Tomas), and serves as an introduction to the “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” that is sections 3, 5, and 7 of Part Three.

Page 32. " Beethoven's last quartet "

Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, opus 135, provides a powerful musical motif for this novel. It was the last significant work that Beethoven composed -- in October 1826, just five months before his death -- and it was not premiered until a year after he was gone. Kundera refers mainly to the final movement of the four-part quartet.

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As the narrator explains, Beethoven wrote some words in the manuscript to illuminate two of the musical motifs: “Muss is sein?” (must it be?) for the introductory slow chords of the fourth movement; and “Es muss sein!” (it must be) for the main theme. (See Bookmark entitled "A certain Dembscher," page 195, for the supposed story behind these phrases.) The words to indicate the style of playing are “Grave” and “Allegro,” which simply mean “slow and solemn” and “fast and lively.” 

This 1820 portrait, painted by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) is supposed to show Beethoven in the act of composing his Missa Solemnis.

The implications of the Beethoven work and its use in this novel have to do with fate. As the discussion in the next section of Part One states, Beethoven viewed weight as a positive value. The characters of The Unbearable Lightness have differing opinions on this, however: Tomas and Sabina are obviously drawn to lightness, though it bothers them at times, while Tereza and Franz are more typically drawn to weight while occasionally flirting with lightness.

Tereza decides there was something necessary, perhaps even preordained, about her love with Tomas, because of the circumstances that brought them together. She had loved Beethoven’s music ever since she had seen a string quartet play the last three Beethoven string quartets to an audience of three (Tereza, the pharmacist, and his wife), and then had dinner with all six. Beethoven is playing on the hotel restaurant radio as she goes to serve Tomas a cognac.

There’s a part of Tomas that wants to believe their love is fated, but it also makes him uncomfortable that his meeting with Tereza depended on “six fortuities” and could so easily never have occurred.

Must what happens be what happens? And how does one read the signs, assuming there are any?

Page 32. " Der schwer gefasste Entschluss "

This is Beethoven’s written description of the fourth movement of his Sixteenth String Quartet, which is usually translated as “the difficult resolution,” although the narrator remarks on the next page that it could also be read as “the weighty resolution.”

Here is a video of the Hagen Quartet playing the fourth movement of the Beethoven String Quartet in F Major, opus 135:


In music, “resolution” refers to the movement from a dissonant, or out-of-key chord or sound, back to the main note or chord of the musical work. Since Beethoven used variation techniques in the Sixteenth String Quartet, not typical in this form, he might also have been referring to the return of the piece to its original theme(s) at the conclusion, following its meander through variations on the theme.

Kundera takes the philosophical implication of the phrase -- difficulty experienced in coming to a decision or conclusion to a story -- and runs with it. There is also a description of the "true story" behind Beethoven's use of the phrase much later, in section 8 of Part Five, which is on pages 195-196 of this edition).

Page 33. " Atlas "

Farnese Atlas
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFarnese Atlas - Credit: Lalupa
In Greek myth, Atlas was the titan who bore the Earth on his shoulders, specifically at the location in northern Africa (between Morocco and Algeria) now called the Atlas Mountains. This task was handed by Zeus to Atlas as punishment for siding with the Titans in a war with the gods of Mt. Olympus. (Prometheus was a brother of Atlas who joined the winning side.)

Atlas has since been used as a symbol for everything from Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged to the cover of Van Halen’s album “5150.” A familiar artistic representation is the large bronze statue of Atlas that stands at the entrance to Rockefeller Center in New York City. Pictured here is the "Farnese Atlas," a second-century Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture, currently housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.

Page 35. " Es könnte auch anders sein "

In German, “It could just as well be otherwise.” This is offered by the narrator as the opposite to “Es muss sein” (“it must be”; see Bookmark on page 32) and introduces the description of Tomas’s distress when he identifies the “six fortuities” that had to be in place for him to have met his “great love,” Tereza, and therefore how easily it could not have happened at all.

"Es könnte auch anders sein" is another version of "einmal ist keinmal" (see Bookmark, page 8).

Page 40. " the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience "

Descartes drawing of mind-body dualism
Public DomainDescartes drawing of mind-body dualism
The narrator refers to the long-standing philosophical and theological problem of the apparent division between mind and body, soul and flesh, consciousness and matter, which is at the heart of everything from religious faith and its assertion of an afterlife, to the philosophy of René Descartes (who turns up much later in the book during the discussion of the treatment of animals; see Bookmark for page 288).

The drawing at left is by Descartes, from his "Metaphysical Meditations," showing the function of the pineal gland, and thereby illustrating the mind-body dualism.

Discussion of a mind-body split, or an incorporeal entity known as a “soul,” goes back at least as far as Zarathustra, Plato, and Aristotle, but Descartes’ writings are probably the most famous on the subject.

The narrator says that modern medical science has done away with much of our knee-jerk concerns about mind vs. body -- the soul is simply electrochemical impulses in grey matter and muscular motions of the heart -- but the rumbling demands of the stomach can tear us away from passionate love in a way that reminds us of that split between mind and body all over again.

Page 42. " Raphael's madonna "

Madonna and Child in the Sistine Chapel
Public DomainMadonna and Child in the Sistine Chapel
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), known simply in English as “Raphael,” was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance known for the perfection and grace of his paintings, especially portraits of the Madonna, numbering at least two dozen.

The painting at right is a Raphael Madonna and Child from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, Rome. Note the cherubs ("putti") at the bottom of the frame, which have become ubiquitous in commercial art in recent years.

Page 47. " Fielding "

Henry Fielding
Public DomainHenry Fielding

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was an English novelist and playwright.

Whereas his contemporaries Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe dressed up their novels as “letters” or “memoirs,” Fielding was the first major English writer to proclaim openly that his books were fictions. They are known for their satire and earthy humor; his most famous novel is Tom Jones.

In his professional roles as barrister and then magistrate, Fielding is also credited with helping to establish London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners.


Page 47. " Thomas Mann "

Thomas Mann
Public DomainThomas Mann - Credit: Carl Van Vechten

A German novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Mann (1875-1955) is best known for Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus.

Based in Zurich, Switzerland (where Tomas and Tereza move for six or seven months and he continues to meet Sabina on the sly), Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, fled the Nazi takeover in 1939 to move to the United States, but returned to Zurich in 1952 where he died three years later.

His writings are notable for focusing on the psychology of artists and intellectuals.


Page 49. " Francis of Assisi "

St. Francis of Assisi
Public DomainSt. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, c. 1181-1226) was a Catholic deacon and founder of the Franciscans, officially known as the Order of Friars Minor. He is known as the patron saint of animals and the environment; it is customary for Catholic churches to hold a blessing of animals on his feast day of October 4.

Legends and stories about his supposed kindness to animals, and their love for him, sprang up after his death and are known as the “Little Flowers” of St. Francis. One tells of Francis preaching to a flock of birds in the trees, not one of which flew away. Statues of St. Francis often depict birds perched on his shoulders.

The painting at left is by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurburàn (1598-1664), dated 1658 and currently on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

The narrator of Unbearable Lightness makes an analogy between the birds coming down to St. Francis and the “fortuities” or happy coincidences that seem to lead to, or support, a passionate love affair.

Page 50. " He was sitting on a yellow bench "

The yellow bench represents for Tereza one of the fateful signs that she and Tomas were meant to be together. She finds him sitting on it, waiting for his train, a day after she had sat on it with a book. The “six fortuities” like the yellow bench give her the courage to follow Tomas to Prague and seek him out.

Much later, after many years of unhappy marriage to the philandering Tomas, but shortly after having the Petrin Hill dream, sleeping with the engineer, and traveling to the spa town with all the Russian names, Tereza is so unhappy, “She wanted to die.” She takes a walk and sees red, yellow, and blue park benches being swept down the Vltava River (section 29 of Part Four, pages 170-171). This may be a dream, or it may refer to an actual event; it is hard to tell.

But one might say that dream or not, it symbolizes the washing-away of Tomas and Tereza’s unhappy life, including the fascination for fortuities like the yellow bench in her hometown where she had met him.