Page 82. " Palermo "
Gulf of Palermo
Creative Commons AttributionGulf of Palermo - Credit: Xerones

City on the northwest coast of Sicily. Founded by the Phoenicians but named by the ancient Greeks (Panormus, meaning "all-port"). The fifth largest city in Italy, its population is estimated around 855,000, though the metropolitan area numbers closer to 1.2 million.

Google Map

Palermo is one of two Italian cities Franz and Sabina visit on their traveling affair -- the other being Rome. (Venice is mentioned in passing in an unsavory metaphor in section 1 of Part Three, page 82).

Page 85. " Orthodox church "

The Russian Orthodox Church in Geneva was consecrated in 1866 -- the first in Switzerland. A Russian community settled and grew in Switzerland in the early years of the 19th century. The Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna, wife of the Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich (younger brother of Czar Alexander I) settled in Bern, then moved to Geneva in the 1850s.

The Czar feared the Russian community would be vulnerable to liberal ideas floating around Switzerland. Geneva, known as the “Protestant Rome” where religious controversies had boiled since the Reformation, donated land for the church at one of the highest points in the city, overlooking Lake Geneva. On a clear day, the golden domes can be seen like glowing candles from miles away.

Page 87. " Bohemian "

Capitalized, Bohemian refers to a citizen of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, a sovereign nation in central Europe between 1212 and 1918, when it was dissolved and renamed the Czechoslovak Republic. During the preceding centuries, it was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austrian Empire. It included the city of Prague.

The present-day Czech Republic incorporates what were once known as Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. “Bohemian” may be used to refer to any citizen of the Czech Republic today, or of the language they spoke before “Czech” became more prevalent in English.

The lower-case noun "bohemian" is used casually today to refer to a person, often an artist or a writer, who lives and behaves in a free manner, unconstrained by conventional rules and mores. It emerged in 19th-century France, when writers and artists started to gather in lower-class, gypsy neighborhoods, and "bohémien" was a common term for Romani people who had migrated west to France via Bohemia. Puccini's wildly popular 1896 opera "La bohème" may have had a hand in the evolution of the term.

Page 88. " Heraclitus "

Heraclitus, detail from Raphael painting
Public DomainHeraclitus, detail from Raphael painting

Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE), is sometimes referred to as “the Obscure” or “the Weeping Philosopher.” Characteristic epigrams are “The road up and the road down are the same road” and “The beginning and the end are the same.”

The narrator refers to another famous Heraclitean aphorism: “You can’t step into the same river” (or “You cannot step twice into the same river") -- meaning the river has changed between the first and any subsequent time you step into it (and you have, too!). Plato interpreted the remark to mean “Everything changes and nothing remains still.” One might call Heraclitus the emblematic thinker of the unbearable lightness of being.

Kundera’s narrator makes an analogy between Heraclitus’s river and Sabina’s hat. Its meaning, its import, even its very nature, changes each time she puts it on.

In the detail shown here from a 1509 painting, "The School of Athens," Raphael combined the ancient Greek philosopher and Raphael's contemporary Michelangelo (since he could have had no idea what Heraclitus really looked like) into one person.

Page 89. " Columbus "
Christopher Columbus
Public DomainChristopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (c. 1451 – 1506), an Italian navigator, is generally referred to as the “discoverer of the Americas” for the first of four voyages he made to the New World for Spain in 1492. Although preceded by the Norse under Leif Ericson by a good 500 years, Columbus initiated regular contact between Europeans and the indigenous American peoples.

This portrait of the explorer was painted by the Florentine Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561). It was executed in the first half of the sixteenth century, about 1520, after the death of Columbus. The artist never lived in Spain  and probably never met the admiral. It is displayed in a showcase of the Museum of the sea and navigation of Genoa, "It Padiglione del Mare e della Navigazione."

Under “Woman,” the first item in the “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words,” Sabina does not at first grasp that Franz is expressing a value rather than a fact when he admiringly calls her a woman, which on the surface seems glaringly obvious and unworthy of the sort of seriousness with which one might announce the discovery of a new world.

Page 90. " Platonic ideal "

Plato and Aristotle
Public DomainPlato and Aristotle
When capitalized and linked to the word “ideal,” Platonic refers to Plato’s theory of forms, in which every material object or creature in the world imperfectly expresses an abstract and perfect form of that object or creature.

The image at right is a detail from Raphael's "The School of Athens" and depicts Plato with Aristotle. Plato, on the left, is holding a copy of his Timaeus and pointing at the heavens, to signify his belief in The Forms.

The narrator of Unbearable Lightness theorizes that the ideal inside of, or behind the surface reality of, Franz's wife Marie-Claire is his mother. Platonic theory would say that Franz’s mother was merely another expression of the ideal of womanhood, but the narrator observes that to Franz, “His mother and the Platonic ideal of womanhood were one and the same.”

Page 91. " she was not allowed to paint like Picasso "
Public DomainPicasso

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (1881-1973), best known as Pablo Picasso, was a Spanish-born painter and sculptor who lived most of his life in Paris and elsewhere in France. His accomplishments, flamboyant lifestyle, and genius for self-promotion combined to make him one of the best, most revolutionary, and certainly best-known of twentieth century artists.

The Guitarist, 1910
Public DomainThe Guitarist, 1910

“Cubism” was an artistic style pioneered by Picasso and Georges Braque, principally during the period 1907-1911, though copied and extended by others for many years thereafter. The painting here, dating from 1910 and titled "The Guitarist," is a prime example of Picasso's "analytical cubism."

Though somewhat influential in literature and music as well (and despite Picasso’s brief membership in the French Communist Party in the mid 1940s), cubism and Picasso were judged too radical and unrealistic to be acceptable under Soviet socialist regimes, and therefore were labeled “decadent bourgeois art.”

Thus, the narrator of Unbearable Lightness remarks, the approved regime of socialist realism ruled out Picasso and cubism as fit subjects for Sabina to study at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Page 91. " Communist "

Lenin in Moscow, 1920
Public DomainLenin in Moscow, 1920
Strictly speaking, a Communist is a person who follows the political philosophy of Communism, a social structure in which classes are (ostensibly) abolished and property controlled in common.

“Pure communism” as Karl Marx and his followers would define it, would consist of a classless, stateless, and oppression-free society, in which decisions about what to produce and which policies to pursue are made democratically among equals. In twentieth-century practice, however, communism tended to be expressed practically (and therefore defined) as Bolshevism or Leninism, which involved a centralized government in control of the means of production and setting of policy.

This image, of Lenin addressing troops in front of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre on May 5, 1920, is only the left half of the original photograph, which included Trotsky in the foreground of the right half. After Trotsky became persona non grata to Stalin's Communist regime in the 1930s, the photo was sliced in two to remove him.

Compare “socialist,” discussed in the Bookmark for page 63.

Page 91. " socialist realism "

The (former) Stalin Monument in Prague
Public DomainThe (former) Stalin Monument in Prague
Socialist Realism was a realistic style of art that developed in the Soviet Union under communism and spread to satellite states of that regime. It was the officially approved form of art in the Soviet Union for 60 years.

Socialist realism was supposed to glorify the workers’ struggle toward a socialist paradise. It aimed to depict the proletarian worker as he truly was, with his tools. In part, it was a reaction against the aristocratic art of the tsars. The Soviet Congress of 1934 set down four rules for socialist realism. It had to be:

Proletarian; that is, relevant to the workers and comprehensible to them,

Typical; depicting everyday scenes in the life of the people,

Realistic; meaning, representational and not abstract or conceptual, and finally

Partisan; in keeping with the goals of the Communist Party

In practice, the work tended to be boring, repetitive, uninspired, heavily censored, and propagandistic. The only real buyer was the government, and artists became, in effect, state employees. As the narrator of Unbearable Lightness says, “the school manufactured portraits of Communist statesmen.”

Pictured here is the Stalin Monument that was unveiled in Prague in 1955 after five and a half years of labor by Otakar Švec and was the largest group statue in Europe at the time, measuring 15.5 meters in height and 22 meters in length. The sculptor, under extreme pressure from the government and secret police and the target of hate mail from fellow Czechs, committed suicide three weeks before the unveiling. His wife had already killed herself.

The monument was destroyed by the Soviets with 800 kilograms of dynamite as a blow against Stalin's "cult of personality" in October 1962 (the month of the Cuban Missile Crisis) -- roughly a year after Tomas would have met Tereza.

Page 92. " Dionysian "

Drunken Dionysos and satyr
Public DomainDrunken Dionysos and satyr

An adjective for a philosophical or aesthetic concept named after Dionysus, one of the sons of Zeus who was the god of wine and the inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy. He provides a contrasting pole to Apollo, the god of the sun, who variously represents light, truth, healing, music, poetry, and the arts. Thus, in opposition to Apollonian values, Dionysus might also represent darkness, individuality, and primal forces of nature. Many theorists have written about this dichotomy, from Friedrich Nietzsche (see Bookmarks for pages 3-4) to Camille Paglia.

This marble statue of a drunken Dionysius and satyr is a Roman copy of some older Greek original and dates from the 2nd century. It stands in the National Museum of Rome.

It’s a bit ironic that Franz, with Tereza one of the “heavy” characters of the novel compared to the “light” and irresponsible Tomas and Sabina (“light,” that is, in the sense of taking risks and ducking commitment, not in the sense of Apollonian light), is shown regarding music with admiration as “the art that comes closest to Dionysian beauty in the sense of intoxication.” But all four primary characters in Unbearable Lightness are drawn to their opposites: Tereza has moments of lightness, such as in her brief affair with the engineer; Tomas and Sabina are drawn at times to security and solidity.

In falling for Sabina, the secure and dependable, highly respectable Franz expresses his Dionysian side.

Page 92. " Beethoven’s Ninth, Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, or the Beatles’ White Album "

Examples of “Dionysian” art which, according to Franz, are irresistibly apt to make one “drunk.”

The first is perhaps the most famous orchestral work of all time: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, whose fourth movement includes the choral “Ode to Joy”, based on a text from the German poet Friedrich Schiller. Beethoven worked on the Ninth between 1818 and 1824, and it has since become wildly popular all over the world. Sony vice-president Norio Ohga, who had studied at the conservatory in Berlin, declared that the playing time of the compact disc, in development by Phillips engineers in 1979, had to be long enough to carry the longest-known recording of the Ninth -- a 74-minute version recorded by the Bayreuther Festspiele in 1951 and conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. (Most versions tend to run closer to 65 minutes.)

Listen on Spotify

Below, Leonard Bernstein discusses the "Ode to Joy" section of Beethoven's Ninth, then conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, in 1989:



Bartók in 1927
Public DomainBartók in 1927

The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Béla Viktor János Bartók (1881-1945) is not nearly as famous as Beethoven’s Ninth, and perhaps not even as well-known as some of Bartók’s other works, such as The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Romanian Folk Dances, or Mikrokosmos. But it has been one of his most-performed works since its premiere in 1937.

It requires two pianists and two percussionists, who play seven instruments between them: timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare drum (both on- and off-snares), tam-tam (gong) and xylophone.

Listen on Spotify


The White Album is the familiar name for an untitled 1968 double-LP recording by the British rock-pop band, The Beatles. It was a looser, more eclectic, more individualistic or atomized work than its predecessor, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the group’s first album on its own label, Apple. It is still regarded as one of the greatest albums in rock history, and includes such cuts as “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Blackbird,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Helter Skelter,” “Rocky Raccoon,” and “Dear Prudence.”


Page 92. " Mozart "

Public DomainMozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), a native of Salzburg (now in Austria), was one of the most prolific and influential composers of the Classical era. A child prodigy, he began composing the first of 600 works at the age of five, traveled and performed before European royalty as a child, and had a profound influence on Western music following his death at the age of 35.

This unfinished 1782 portrait by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange is believed to be the most accurate surviving likeness of the musical genius. Mozart was 26 when it was painted. The painting is on display at the Mozart Museum in Salzburg, Austria.

Page 93. " Johann Sebastian Bach "

Public DomainBach
Bach (1685-1750) was a German composer, organist, and violinist who brought the musical styles and innovations of the Baroque period to their full potential. Though not an innovator himself, he became such a master of the forms pioneered by Corelli, Vivaldi, Telemann, and Handel that he eventually became the towering figure of that musical era.

Many of his works, from the Brandenburg Concertos and Goldberg Variations to the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, have become familiar through quotation in rock music and film.

This portrait, of Bach at 61, was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussman (1695-1774) in about 1742.

Page 96. " May Day parades "

Victory Day Parade, 2008
Creative Commons AttributionVictory Day Parade, 2008 - Credit: Alexander Yuriev,

Although annual rituals on May 1 have deep roots in pagan and Christian practices (from maypoles and morris dancing to Easter and celebrations of the Blessed Virgin), this particular reference is to the Communist observance of International Workers’ Day.

The Second International, an association of socialist and labor parties formed in France in 1889, chose May 1 to commemorate the eight U.S. anarchists tried for murder following a bomb-throwing in Haymarket Square, Chicago, during a labor strike and rally in 1886 that killed eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. (Four of the defendants were hanged, and one committed suicide in jail.)

Parades, especially ones that featured the display of missiles and other large weaponry in Red Square, Moscow, became standard in Communist countries through much of the twentieth century. In Unbearable Lightness, the narrator says state security officers would watch citizens to make sure they attended such parades and regarded them with attentive respect. The photograph here is from a "Victory (in World War II) Day" Parade in Red Square, Moscow -- an event that takes place on May 9, not May Day, but the spirit of the event is similar to the ones described in this novel.

A more detailed description of the May Day parades under the Communists in Prague that Sabina hated appears in section 6 of Part Six, page 249. There, they are labeled “Communist kitsch.”

Page 96. " President Novotny "

Antonín Novotný
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeAntonín Novotný - Credit: Trachemys
Antonín Novotný (1904-1975) was General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from 1953 to 1968. He also held the post of President of Czechoslovakia from 1957 to 1968. He favored centralized, authoritarian, pro-Soviet policies, and was forced out of office in early 1968 to make way for the “Prague Spring” under Dubček (see Bookmarks, pages 25 and 26).

Obviously not a sympathetic figure to the author or characters of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he is mentioned in passing here because Sabina, unimpressed by the big talk of Czech émigrés speaking in the safety of a Western European city (probably Zurich; she is about to board a train to Amsterdam with Franz), chooses to insult a “distinguished émigré” by saying he looks like Novotný.

Page 97. " Dvorak and Janacek "

Antonín Dvořák
Public DomainAntonín Dvořák


Leoš Janáček
Public DomainLeoš Janáček

Antonín Leopold Dvořák (1841-1904; “dvor-ZHOCK”) and Leoš Janáček (1824-1928; “YON-a-check”) are, along with Bedřich Smetana, the most important and well-known composers from Czechoslovakia.

Dvořák made use of the folk tunes of Moravia and his native Bohemia, and is best known for his Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”; it was composed in New York City during the three years he lived and worked in the United States, 1892-1895) and the Slavonic Dances. The “New World Symphony” has a simple tune in the second movement that is reminiscent of a traditional negro spiritual, so another composer set lyrics to it which he titled “Goin’ Home.” Neil Armstrong took a copy of the New World on the Apollo 11 mission, for the first moon landing.

Janáček was also inspired by Moravian and Czech folk music for much of his work, as well as influenced by Dvořák, with whom he was acquainted. His most famous works are the symphonic poem “Sinfonietta” and the rhapsody “Taras Bulba.”

Page 97. " Jan Hus "
Jan Hus
Public DomainJan Hus

Hus was a Czech priest, philosopher, and reformer who lived between about 1372 and 1415, and a key predecessor to Martin Luther and Protestantism. He was excommunicated in 1411 and eventually burned at the stake for disputes with the Catholic Church over matters of theology. Himself influenced by the English theologian John Wycliffe, who oversaw some of the first translations of the Bible into English in the late 14th century, Hus spoke out against the practice of indulgences, and declared that no pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the Church.

His writings also influenced the way in which the Czech language is written today, with the use of diacritics -- the extra marks added to letters that indicate pronunciation and emphasis. (Note, for example, the names of the composers in the previous bookmark). July 6, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus, is a public holiday in the Czech Republic. The statue below was erected in 1915.

Jan Hus statue in Old Town Square of Prague
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJan Hus statue in Old Town Square of Prague

Sabina’s contempt for Czech expatriates in Western Europe is expressed by the fact that none of them “had ever read a line of his works,” and “The only thing they were all able to understand was … the glory of the flames … so for them the essence of being Czech came down to ashes and nothing more.”

Page 98. " Amsterdam "
Postcard view of Amsterdam, 1900
Public DomainPostcard view of Amsterdam, 1900

The capital and largest city of the Netherlands, where Franz takes Sabina by train to accompany him while he is at a conference.

With a city population of 1.36 million, Amsterdam's metropolitan area population of 6.7 million makes it the sixth largest in Europe. Its name comes from its location at a dam on the Amstel River (also the name of a Dutch beer). Amsterdam resembles Venice in that it is only 2 meters above sea level and is crossed by many canals. Much of the land around it consists of flat polders;that is, land reclaimed from the sea with a system of dikes. Tourist attractions include museums to favorite sons Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and the Anne Frank House. The city also gets a lot of tourist traffic for its legalized prostitution and cannabis.

Franz spends some time visiting the Old Church in Amsterdam in section 7 of Part Three, a few pages later.

Page 99. " Maoist "

Portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Gate, Beijing
Public DomainPortrait of Mao at Tiananmen Gate, Beijing
Follower of Maoism, the form of Communism named for Mao Zedong (formerly latinized as Mao Tse-Tung) -- the revolutionary, political theorist, and leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976.

Page 99. " Trotskyist "


Leon Trotsky reading The Militant, 1931
Public DomainLeon Trotsky reading The Militant, 1931

Follower of the form of Marxism advocated by Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). A co-leader of the Russian Revolution with Lenin, Trotsky broke with Stalin on the latter’s emphasis on Bolshevik organization, and favored working class mass action, permanent revolution, and proletarian internationalism (that the workers should work for socialist reform across international borders instead of consolidating power in Russia alone).

Expelled from the Communist Party and deported from the Soviet Union, Trotsky criticized Stalin’s peace treaties with Hitler, and was assassinated in Mexico by a Soviet agent who struck him in the skull with an ice axe.

Note: Trotsky also appears in the photo that accompanies "socialism," the Bookmark on page 63, and is mentioned under "Communist," Bookmark for page 91.

Page 99. " Communist Youth League "

Communist youth marching in May Day Rally, Berlin, 1925
Public DomainCommunist youth marching in May Day Rally, Berlin, 1925

Organization for educating young people in principles of Communism. Many countries -- from Britain, Canada, and the United States to Russia, Nepal, and China -- had local versions of this organization, and still do today, although it more often went by the name “Young Communist League.”


Page 99. " Boulevard Saint-Germain "
Boulevard St. Germain
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeBoulevard St. Germain - Credit: Thbz

A major street in Paris on the Left Bank (south side) of the Seine river. It crosses the Saint-Germaine-des-Prés quarter, where the church of Saint-Germaine-des-Prés (dating back to the Middle Ages) is located, which gives the street its name. American expatriate writer Ernest Hemingway was an habitué of Saint-Germaine-des-Prés.

A Moveable Feast on Book Drum

After the 1930s, the boulevard became known for its nightlife, cafés, and students. It is home to several famous Parisian cafés, such as Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, where thinkers of the French existentialist movement such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir hung out.

Page 99. " Place de la République "
Statue at the center of the Place de la Republique
Public DomainStatue at the center of the Place de la République

A square in Paris named after the French republic.

Google Map
Page 99. " Bastille "

A medieval fortress-prison in Paris formally known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine. “Bastille” is the French word for “castle” or “bastion,” but with the definite article La, it can only refer to this particular structure, which dates from the French Hundred Years’ War in the 1330s.

La Bastille is best known for the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, when hundreds of citizens surrounded and rushed into the structure to demand its closing as a symbol of royal tyranny. A decision to close it had already been made, and most of the prisoners transferred (there were only seven left that day), but 98 attackers and one defender of the prison died in the gunfire during the storming, and the French Revolution had begun.

The painting below, “The Storming of the Bastille,” is by Jean-Pierre Hoeël (1735-1813). Visible in the center is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay, the governor of the Bastille.

Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington the year after the storming, and it remains at Mount Vernon to this day.

Today, July 14 is a national holiday in France, the equivalent of the Fourth of July in the United States. The location of the former fort is now home to the Opéra Bastille; a large ditch or moat behind the old fort has become a marina for pleasure boats, and some stone remnants of one of its towers were discovered during construction of the Metro and were moved to a nearby park.

Page 99. " Europe was the Grand March "

This is the first reference to a pet notion of Franz’s: “the Grand March of History” represents the narrator’s (and probably Kundera’s) ironic -- even sarcastic -- characterization of the illusions of Western leftist intellectuals. Franz believes in history as an ordered, and likely progressive, process -- ever onward, ever upward.

The concept will be mentioned casually several more times before the narrator discusses it in depth. When Franz and Sabina travel to Amsterdam, he thinks of the Grand March of History while looking at the Oude Kerk (see Bookmark for page 109). After Sabina leaves him, Franz’s student mistress takes up the notion as her own (section 11 of Part Three, page 126).

Only in Part Six, which is in fact titled “The Grand March,” will Kundera and the narrator address the concept in depth, in connection with socialist May Day parades and the horror of kitsch (of which the Grand March may be an example), culminating in the ironic, meaningless death of Franz from a mugging in Bangkok right after he has tried to participate in a literal march into Cambodia that is a comic parody of the Grand March he believes in.

In contrast, the narrator says Tomas and Tereza step out of the Grand March of History (or the illusion of it) when they head to the country with Karenin: “… I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head on her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along with mankind, ‘the master and proprietor of nature,’ marches onward” (section 2 of Part Seven, page 290).