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Nikos Kazantzakis: The Greatest Greek Writer of the 20th Century

Nikos Kazantzakis
Nikos Kazantzakis writing. Credit: Public Domain

Nikos Kazantzakis is considered by many the greatest Greek writer of the 20th century, and his books have been translated more so than any of his contemporaries.

The Cretan man’s literary genius was recognized posthumously after his book Zorba the Greek was created into an award winning film in 1964.

If Kazantzakis’ work is to be described in one word, it would be a Greek word, of course, and that is pathos.

The writing of the great writer is passionate, raw, rebellious, unpredictable, and often mystical—much like Crete itself.

His life was as exciting as his books. He was a novelist, poet, playwright, journalist, philosopher, and politician, and he lived in several European cities.

Early life of the great Cretan

Nikos Kazantzakis was born on February 18, 1883 in Heraklion, Crete, which at that time was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

His father, Michalis, was a trader in agricultural products and came from Varvaroi, where the Kazantzakis Museum is located today.

After completing his high school studies in his hometown and Naxos in 1902, he moved to Athens to study Law.

In 1906, he appeared for the first time in Greek letters with the essay “The Disease of the Century” and his first novel Ofis and Krinos.

In 1907, Kazantzakis began his postgraduate studies in law in Paris. At the same time, he attended lectures by existentialist philosopher Henri Bergson and studied Friedrich Nietzsche’s work. Both philosophers exerted a tremendous influence on him for the rest of his life.

In the same year, he began his journalistic career and became interested in Freemasonry; he was soon to be initiated into that group.

In 1909, upon his return to Greece, Kazantzakis published his doctoral dissertation, called “Frederick Nietzsche in the Philosophy of Law and the State.”

At the time, he was earning a living translating books and lived with his compatriot intellectual, Galatia Alexiou, whom he later married.

The writer participated in the movement for the establishment of the Educational Club, the most important pressure group for the establishment of demotic Greek in education.

In 1914, he became friends with the poet Angelos Sikelianos. Together, they traveled to Mount Athos, where they stayed for about forty days while touring many other parts of Greece.

During this period, he was introduced to the work of Dante, whom he described as one of his teachers, along with Homer and Henri Bergson, in his diaries. He and Sikelianos even dreamed of creating a new religion.

In October 1916, Kazantzakis took his first business step. He traveled to Thessaloniki to sign a contract for the collection of timber from Mount Athos.

The next year, he tried to exploit a lignite mine in the Peloponnese and hired a worker named Georgios Zorbas. Their acquaintance was the inspiration for the novel Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas.

In 1918, Kazantzakis met and fell in love with Elli Lampridi, a brilliant educator, philosopher, and active feminist.

The restless mind of Nikos Kazantzakis

From early on in his youth, Kazantzakis’ soul was restless. He was tormented by anxiety and metaphysical and existential agony, as the scholars of his work emphasize.

Religious concerns haunted the mind of the unbelieving Nietzschean thinker. He especially dwelled on the figure of Christ, “this union, so mysterious and so real, this union of man and God,” he observed.

This union followed Kazantzakis throughout his life as an obsession, evidenced by his writing until the end. He was also fascinated by the lives of saints.

During a break from writing, Kazantzakis became involved in politics. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos appointed him General Director of the Ministry of Health in 1919 with the mission of repatriating Greeks from the Caucasus region.

The experience was used much later in the novel Christ Recrucified (know as The Greek Passion in the U.S.) with the theme being a representation of the Passion of Christ in a Greek village.

The following year, after the defeat of Venizelos’ Liberal Party in the election, Kazantzakis left the Ministry of Health and made several trips to Europe, starting his own Odyssey around the world.

In 1922 he visited Vienna, where he discovered the work of Sigmund Freud work and Buddhism. He also visited Germany, while in 1924 he stayed for three months in Italy.

In Berlin, Kazantzakis was introduced to Communist ideas and became an admirer of Vladimir Lenin. Yet he never became a loyal communist. At that time his nationalist ideals were replaced by a more internationalist ideology.

During the 1923-1926 period he also made several journalistic trips to the Soviet Union, Palestine, Cyprus and Spain, where he met dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera.

During that period, he worked as a correspondent for the newspapers Eleftheros Logos and Kathimerini. In 1924, Kazantzakis met Eleni Samiou and divorced his wife, Galatia, in 1926.

In May of 1927, he isolated himself on Aegina Island in order to complete his most ambitious work, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an epic poem in the style of Homer’s Odyssey.

In the same year, he started the anthology of his travel articles for the publication of the first volume (Traveling) while the magazine of Dimitris Glinos, called Renaissance, published his philosophical work Asceticism.

The latter is one of the most important texts of Kazantzakis and one in which he expresses his metaphysical beliefs. He considered Asceticism as the seed of all his later work.

On January 11, 1928, he he gave a speech in Athens about the Soviet Union, praising the Soviet model.

Both Kazantzakis and co-organizer Dimitrios Glinos were prosecuted for organizing the speech at the Alhambra Theater, which ended in an open demonstration, but their trial was never held.

In April, Kazantzakis returned to Russia, where he completed a screenplay on the Russian Revolution.

In May of 1929, he isolated himself on a farm in Czechoslovakia, where he completed the novels Toda Raba and Kapetan Elias, a forerunner of Captain Michael. Both works were written in French.

Nikos Kazantzakis
Nikos Kazantzakis in later life. Credit: Nikos Kazantzakis Museum

These works were part of Kazantzakis’s effort to gain international recognition as a writer. Toda Raba was released under the pseudonym Nikolai Kazan.

In 1931, Kazantzakis returned to Greece and settled in Aegina once again, where he undertook the writing of a French-Greek dictionary in order to cover his living expenses.

At the same time, he translated Dante’s Divine Comedy and wrote some of the odes that were later incorporated into Tertsines (1960).

In 1935, he traveled to Japan and China, enriching his travel texts while as a correspondent for Kathimerini he covered the Spanish Civil War (1936).

In 1938, Kazantzakis completed The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, consisting of a total of 33,333 verses and 24 rhapsodies. Kazantzakis spent almost fourteen years working on its completion after he revised it eight times.

The poem begins with the return of Odysseus to Ithaca, an unsatisfied hero who was still wandering, trying to achieve “full freedom.”

Kazantzakis wanted to write an epic of modern man, so he considered the Odyssey as his most important work.

At the same time, many of his texts were published in newspapers and magazines, and he wrote Le Jardin des Rochers (otherwise known as The Rock Garden) in French, drawing on his recent experiences in the Far East.

During the German occupation of Greece (1941-1944), Kazantzakis remained in Aegina and collaborated with Ioannis Kakridis for the translation of Homer’s Iliad.

After the Germans left, Kazantzakis became intensely active in Greek political life. He was president of the Socialist Workers’ Movement while he was a minister without portfolio in the government of Themistoklis Sofoulis from November 26, 1945 to January 11, 1946.

In November 1945, he married his partner, Eleni Samiou.

In 1946, the Society of Greek Writers nominated Kazantzakis, along with Angelos Sikelianos, for the Nobel Prize. However, his candidacy was fought against by conservative politicians and writers.

The following year, however, he was appointed to UNESCO, undertaking the task of promoting the translation of classic literary works with the ultimate goal of bridging different cultures.

Kazantzakis resigned in 1948 in order to dedicate himself to his literary work. For this purpose, he settled in Antibes, France where, in the following years, he had a particularly productive period.

In 1952, he contracted an eye infection, which forced him to be treated first in the Netherlands and later in Paris, but he eventually lost sight in his right eye.

While Kazantzakis was living in Antibes, the Greek Orthodox Church was trying to oust him from its ranks. He was accused of blasphemy in excerpts from Kapetan Michalis (Captain Michael), an autobiographical novel about Heraklion in his childhood.

Kazantzakis and Zorba the Greek

In early 1954, his novel Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas was published in France, earning the title of best foreign book of that year.

The book refers to the friendship of an intellectual with a man who explores his more primitive instincts but who is full of a thirst  for life. Zorba’s character is the personification of the Bergonian idea of the ​​”animal impulse.”

The Zorba character is full of contradictions. At one moment, he is a child-like man while he carries a hard to define lay wisdom the very next moment.

One day, Zorba seems worn out by age while, the next day, he is a sprightly man ready to dance and womanize.

The narrator likens Zorba to God, the Devil, Buddha, and Zeus, or all these together. All these traits appeared in Kazantzakis’ life, as well, during stages of the writer’s life.

Yet, “Zorba” is not autobiographical as is easy to believe. It is as complex as the writer’s life, bouncing between the human and the divine.

In 1964, a film adaptation of the novel directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis and starring Anthony Quinn won three Academy Awards and had four nominations.

At the same time, the movie introduced Kazantzakis to a wide audience.

The Last Temptation of Christ

Kazantzakis’ book, The Last Temptation of Christ, ended up being one of the most controversial books of all time, often appearing on “banned book” lists.

The Last Temptation of Christ, a novel in which Christ struggles between his divine and human nature, infuriated the Church even though it had not been published in Greece yet.

Kazantzakis responded to the aphorism of the Church in a letter: “You have given me a curse, Holy Fathers, I respond to you with a wish: I wish you that your conscience is as pure as mine and you to be as moral and religious as I am. ”

In the end, the Church of Greece did not dare to proceed with the excommunication of Nikos Kazantzakis, as Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras was opposed to such an act.

In 1954, Pope Pius XII himself placed the book on the “Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books,” the Index Librorum Prohibitorum,

In response, Kazantzakis telegraphed the Vatican personally, using a phrase from the Christian apologist Tertullian: “Ad tuum, Domine, tribunal appello.”

The phrase means “I lodge my appeal at your tribunal, Lord.” Kazantzakis was telling the Catholic Church that God will be his final judge—not a worldly institution like the Church.

Later scholars dismissed the idea that Kazantzakis was being sacrilegious or blasphemous in writing these books.

On the contrary, the struggle to understand the tie between the human and the divine and the doubts created, strengthen one’s belief rather than make them a non-believer.

The official condemnation from both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, prompted a writer of the era to remark that it was the “first time since 1054 that the two Churches had agreed on anything.”

Controversy followed again more than three decades later when Martin Scorsese made the book into a film in 1988. A protest against the film from Christians in the United States spread quickly throughout the world.

The film was banned outright in more than a dozen nations, including Turkey, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, and Singapore. In Paris, a cinema which refused to give in to protestors to cancel the premiere was torched by Christian demonstrators.

Final years, Nobel Nomination, and passing

In 1955, Kazantzakis undertook the publication of the translation of the “Iliad,” while in the same year, “The Last Temptation of Christ” was finally published in Greece.

In 1955 Kazantzakis also began writing his work “Report on Greco” in Lugano, Switzerland. The book was actually his intellectual autobiography.

After a second trip to China, at the invitation of the Chinese government, he returned to Europe sick and was hospitalized in Copenhagen and Freiburg.

In 1957, Kazantzakis lost the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus by one vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honor “a hundred times more” than himself. The Greek writer would be nominated for the Nobel a total of nine times.

Kazantzakis died on October 26, 1957, at the age of 74. His body was transported to Athens, but the Church of Greece refused to allow an open casket funeral ceremony.

His body was transported to the Heraklion Metropolitan Church of Heraklion where the funeral took place with an open casket for a last farewell, but no liturgy.

Kazantzakis’ compatriots honored him and buried him in a bastion of the Venetian castle walls of Heraklion.

On his grave, there is the inscription: “I hope for nothing. I’m not afraid of anything. I am free”.

Nikos Kazantzakis
Kazantzakis’ tombstone. Credit: Frente/Wikipedia

Nikos Kazantzakis’ famous quotes

“Now I know. I hope for nothing, I am not afraid of anything, I have been relieved from the mind and from the heart, I ascended higher, I am free. That’s what I want. I do not want anything else. ”

“What never happened is what we never longed for enough.”

“Our life is but a lightning … but we still have time.”

“To die every day. To be born every day. Το renounce what you have every day.”

“Unfortunate man, you can move mountains, perform miracles, while you wallow in the dung, laziness and infidelity! You have God inside you, you carry God in you and you do not know it – you only find out when you die, but it is too late.”

“The right way is the uphill way.”

“We come from a dark abyss; we end up in a dark abyss; the light in between we call Life.”

“You must love people because it is you.”

“The woman’s body is a cliff full of flowers.”

“Salvation means to be saved from all saviors; this is the highest freedom, the highest, where man breathes with difficulty. Can you stand it?”

“The four pillars of this world: bread, wine, fire, woman.”

“Greece still survives; I think it survives through successive miracles.”

“Crete does not want homemakers, she wants madmen. These madmen ​​make her immortal.”

Do not stoop down to ask, “Will we win? Will we lose?” Just fight!”

“Did I win? Was I defeated? All I know is: I’m full of wounds and standing tall.”

“If you can, stare at fear in the eye and fear will get scared and go away.”

“As long as there are hungry children, there is no God.”

“Happiness is a simple and austere thing – a glass of wine, a chestnut, a small brazier, the roar of the sea. Nothing else”

“Every Greek who does not take, even once in his life, a brave decision, betrays his race.”

“Eternity is quality, not quantity, this is the big, very simple secret.”

“As long as a man does not reach the edge of a cliff, he does not grow wings on his back to fly.”

“Isn’t he God? He does whatever he pleases. If he could not do injustices, what power would he have?”

“Whatever you wish for, shout it out loud, go wild. Longing and mediocrity don’t go together.”

“Life is trouble. Only death is not. Life is when you clench your fists and ask for a fight.”

“Reach everywhere that you can’t reach!”

“There is no heavier punishment than this: To respond to evil with kindness.”

“The greatest journey we make is within our soul.”

“Dignity is not receiving honors but deserving them.”

“What is above words? Actions. What is above actions? Silence.”

“Life is a cloudburst, it will pass.”

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