We learn that Franz is a professor in Geneva, and we meet his painter-mistress, who turns out to be Sabina. After some complications including her bowler hat, she agrees to go to Palermo with him for his lecture trip.
In the dictionary of misunderstood words, we learn about all the ways that Franz and Sabina differ. We also learn about Franz's relationship with his wife, Marie-Claude.
Franz finally decides to tell his wife about his affair with Sabina. He is overjoyed…until Sabina leaves him.
But Franz quickly recovers. He enjoys being on his own for once, and takes a student as a lover. He realizes that he enjoys his relationship with Sabina more now that she is gone and he can worship her as a Goddess.
He develops a serious relationship with his student-mistress and wants to marry her; but his wife won't give him a divorce.
One day, he gets a phone call from some friends who are marching to Cambodia to protest that doctors be allowed through the closed borders.
Franz doesn't want to go, because he knows that his student-mistress would be upset at his absence. But then he imagines that Sabina is speaking to him and wants him to go – so he decides to make the trip.
At the meeting before the march, there's a lot of fighting and miscommunication between the Americans and the Europeans. The march is largely ineffective, and a photographer is blown-up in the process.
Franz is struck at one point by the urge to do something rash and bold that would please Sabina but probably get himself killed.
Then he remembers his student-mistress, realizes he loves her completely, and thinks he's an idiot for going on this march in the first place.
Franz is mugged. He goes along with it until he thinks of Sabina, who would mock him for his weakness and who always loved his strength. He fights back and wakes up in a hospital in Geneva.
Franz wants his student-mistress, but he's paralyzed and can't speak. Instead, he has to watch his wife Marie-Claude take care of him.
After Franz's death, Marie-Claude organizes the funeral and tells everyone that he came back to her despite his mid-life crisis, and that she forgave him.
She puts an inscription on his grave that will reiterate this idea.
Franz's student-mistress attends the funeral and is hysterical over his death.