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Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957)


Prolific Greek writer, whose works include essays, novels, poems, tragedies, travel books, and translations of such classics as Dante's The Divine Comedy and J.W. von Goethe's Faust. Like his hero, Odysseus, Kazantzakis lived most of his artistic life outside Greece - except for the years of World War II. "I am a mariner of Odysseus with heart of fire but with mind ruthless and clear," Kazantzakis wrote in Toda Raba (1934). Several of the author's novels deal with the history and culture of his own country, and the mystical relationship between man and God. In 1957 he lost the Nobel Prize by a single vote to the French writer Albert Camus.

"Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father's struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, he more the danger increases and the heart shrinks." (from Nikos Kazantzakis by Helen Kazantzakis, 1968)

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Megalokastro, Ottoman Empire, now Iráklion, Crete, the son of Michael Kazantzakis, a farmer and dealer of in animal feed, and his wife, the former Maria Christodoulzki. Kazantzakis was raised among peasants and although Kazantzakis left Crete as a young man, he returned to his homeland constantly in his writings. He attended the Franciscan School of the Holy Cross, Naxos, and the Gymnasium at Herakleion (1899-1902). Kazantzakis then studied four years at the University of Athens, becoming Doctor of Laws in 1906.

From 1907 to 1909 Kazantzakis studied philosophy in Paris at the Collège de France under Henri Bergson. His first book, Ophis kai krino, was published in 1906. In the same year appeared his play Xemeronei. Between the 1910s and 1930s Kazantzákis wrote dramas, verse and travel books, and travelled widely in China, Japan, Russia, England, Spain, and other countries. Restlessly moving on, he came to identify himself with Odysseus, writing in a poem: "Hail, my soul, whose homeland has always been the journey."

Kazantzakis spent many years in public service. In 1919 he was appointed director general at the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare. By 1927, when Kazantzakis resigned from this post, he had been responsible for the feeding and eventual rescue of more than 150 000 people of Greek origin, who had been caught up in the civil war raging in the Caucasian region of the Soviet Union. Though never a member of the Communist party, Kazantzakis sympathized leftist movements in the early phase of his life and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize later. However, after three journeys in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, he became disenchanted with the materialism of the Bolsheviks. The basis of his own philosophy, which contained elemests from Bergson, Marxism, Nietzsche, Christianity, and Buddism, Kazantzakis presented in Salvatores Dei (1927), written in 1922-23 in Berlin. "We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life," were his much quoted opening words in the book.

Kazantzakis's first novel, Toda Raba, was published in French when he was 51. His vast and rambling epic poem Odysséas (1938) continued the Homer's tale. Kazantzakis himself considered it his major achievement, dismissing other works as "spin-offs". Before WW II Kazantzakis settled on the island of Aegina, and in 1948 he moved to Antibes, southern France. After the war, he served as a minister in the Greek government of Aegina. In 1947-48 he worked for UNESCO. Kazantzákis died of leukemia on October 26, 1957, in Freiburg im Breisgau, in Germany. Helen Kazantzakis, his wife, tells in the author's biography that he always had as his traveling companion a miniature Dante, and Dante alone remained at his bedside until his last breath.

Although Kazantzakis published a number of his novels in French, his most celebrated works were composed in the colloquial language of the Cretan working classes. Zorba the Greek, his best-known novel, was written on the island of Aegina, between 1941 and 1943. It was made into a popular and highly successful movie and inspired the Broadway musical by Joseph Stein, John Kander, and Fred Ebb. The story focuses on the relationship of a writer and intellectual, modelled on Kazantzakis, and an uneducated man, Zorba, who drinks, works, loves and lives like a force of nature. His character has been seen as the personification of Henri Bergson's ideas of élan vital. He doesn't care about books, he values more experience and understanding than scholarly learning. The narrator meets Alexis Zorba in Pireus. He plans to reopen on the island of Crete an abandoned mine and Zorba becomes his foreman. Kazantzakis weaves the narrator's childhood memories and thoughts against the life and teaching of Zorbas. After a series of tragedies, failures and small victories, the narrator leaves Crete, but asks his friend to teach him to dance. "How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea." (from Zorba the Greek)

Freedom or Death was based on the Cretan revolt of 1889, one of the final rebellions against Turkish rule. One of the central characters is Captain Mikalis, who chooses rebellion instead of love, and dies in the middle of his cry, "Freedom or..." Kazantzakis shows also understanding of the Turkish culture in the character of Nuri bei, who commits suicide. The Greek Passion was story about a group of villagers under Turkish domination, who re-enact the Passion. The Last Temptation of Christ explored the theme of the battle between spirit and flesh. The book was banned by Vatican in 1954 and in 1955 Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church. The members of the Orthodox Church of America damned the work as extremely indecent and atheistic, after admitting that they hadn't read it and had based their case on the magazine articles. Kazantzakis presented Christ as an existential hero, a rebel against his divine mission until he is awakened by Judas, whom he calls his brother. Judas tries to same in Jerusalem, but his heroic struggle against God ends in failure. Martin Scorsese's film adaption from 1988 boosted the sale of the book.

Kazantzakis's major work was the enormous poetic work Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 33 333 lines long, which he wrote seven times and published in 1938. The poem manifested the author's deep knowledge of modern archeological and anthropological discoveries. Some critics accused the author of being too revolutionary in vocabulary and diction. Kazantzakis himself emphasized that the work was a synthesis of two forms of thought, which had created the ancient Greek civilization: the Apollonian, representing contemplation and order, and the dark Dionysian underground stream, the expression of the elan vital. "Crete, for me . . . is the synthesis which I always pursue, the synthesis of Greece and the Orient," he said.

For further reading: Nikos Kazantzakis and His Odyssey by P. Prevelakis (1961); Nikos Kazantzakis by H. Kazantzakis (1968); Nikos Kazantzakis: La vie, son oeuvre by C. Janiaud-Lust (1970); Kazantzakis and the Linguistic Revolution in Greek Literature by P. Bien (1972); Nikos Kazantzakis by P. Bien (1972); Nietzsche and Kazantzakis by B.T. McDonough (1978); The Spiritual Odyssey of Nikos Kazantzakis, ed. by K. Friar (1979); The Cretan Glance by M.P. Levitt (1980); Tormented by Happiness by P. Bien (1982); Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit by P. Bien (1988); The Last Temptation of Hollywood by L.W. Poland (1988); God's Struggler, ed. by Darren Middleton and Peter Bien (1996); Kazantzakis and God by Daniel A. Dombrowski (1997); Creative Destruction: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Literature of Responsibility by Lewis Owens (2002); Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit by Peter Bien (2006)
Selected works:
  • Ophis kai krino, 1906
    - Serpent and Lily (translated by Theodora Vasils, 1980)
  • Ximeroni, 1906
  • O Friderikos Nitse, 1909
  • Ho prōtomastoras, 1910 (play)
  • Salvatores Dei / Askētikē, 1927
    - The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (translated by Kimon Friar, 1960)
    - Askeesi (suom. Sirkka Saksa, 1997)
  • Nikēphoros Phōkas, 1927 (play)
  • Taxideuontas, 1927
  • Christos, 1928 (play)
  • Odisseas, 1928 (play)
  • Ti ida sti Rosia, 1928 (2 vols., as Taxidevontas: Rousia, 1956)
    - Russia (translated by Michael Antonakes and Thanasis Maskaleris)
  • Historia tēs Rōsikēs logotechnias, 1930 (2 vols.)
  • Toda-Raba, 1934 (written in French)
    - Toda Raba (translated by Amy Mims, 1964)
  • Taxidevontas: Ispania, 1937
    - Spain (translated by Amy Mims, 1963)
  • O Morias, 1937
    - Journey to the Morea (translated by F. A Reed; photos by Alexander Artemakis, 1965) / Travels in Greece (UK title; translated by F. A Reed, photographs by Alexander Artemakis, 1966)
  • Odisseas, 1938
    - The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (translated by Kimon Friar, 1958)
  • Taxidevontas II: Iaponia-Kina, 1938
    - Japan-China (US title; translated by George C. Pappageotes, 1963) / Travels in China and Japan (UK title; translated by George C. Pappageotes, 1964)
  • Melissa, 1939 (play)
    - Melissa (translated by Athena Gianakas Dallas, in Three Plays, 1969)
  • Anglia, 1941
    - England (translated by Amy Mims, 1965)
  • Ioulianos, 1945 (play)
  • Kapodistrias, 1946 (play)
  • Vios kai politeia tou Alexē Zormpa, 1946
    - Zorba the Greek (translated by Carl Wildman; with an introd. by Ian Scott-Kilvert, 1952)
    - Kerro minulle, Zorbas (suom. Vappu Roos, 1954)
    - films: Alexis Zorbas / Zorba the Greek, 1964, dir. by Michael Cacoyannis, music by Mikis Theodorakis, starring Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, Sotiris Moustakas, Anna Kyriakou; Sorbas, TV film 1972, prod. by Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), starring Yossi Yadin (as Alexis Sorbas), Luise Ullrich and Dagmar Koller
  • Ho Kapetan Michales, 1953
    - Freedom or Death (US title; translated by Jonathan Griffin, 1955) / Freedom and Death (UK title; translated by Jonathan Griffin, 1956)
    - Vapaus tai kuolema (suom. Elvi Sinervo, 1955)
  • Ho Christos xanastaurōnetai, 1954
    - The Geek Passion (translated by Jonathan Griffin, 1954) / Christ Recrusified (translated by Jonathan Griffin, 1954; 2d Eng. ed., 1960)
    - Ikuinen vaellus (suom. Juho Tervonen, 1952)
    - films: Celui qui doit mourir, 1957, dir. by Jules Dassin, Melina Mercouri, Pierre Vaneck, Gert Fröbe, Grégoire Aslan, Teddy Bilis, Carl Möhner; O Hristos xanastavronetai, TV series 1975, prod. by Astir TV, starring Giorgos Foundas, Vasilis Tsaglos, Théodore Katsoulis, Giannis Argyris
  • Ho teleutaios peirasmos, 1955
    - The Last Temptation of Christ (translated by P.A. Bien, 1960; see also Jose Saramago's O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo, 1991)
    - Viimeinen kiusaus (suom. Elvi Sinervo, 1957)
    - film 1988, dir. by Martin Scorsese, script Paul Schrader, starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Paul Greco, Steve Shill, Verna Bloom. "For many years I had the Kazantzakis novel The Last Temptation of Christ under option. That was one I'd always intended to do. I was so glad that Marty [Scorsese] finally did it [1988] because: can you imagine what would have happened if a Jew had done that movie?" Sidney Lumet in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanocich (1998).
  • Kuros, 1955 (play)
    - Kouros (translated by Athena Gianakas Dallas, in Three Plays, 1969)
  • Iliada, 1955 (translator, with Th Kakridēs)
  • Theatro: tragōdies, 1955-56 (3 vols.; Tragodies I. Tragodies me archea themata: Promitheas, Kouros, Odisseas, Melissa; Theatro II. Tragodies me vizantina themata: Christos, Ioulianos o Paravatis, Nikiforos Fokas, Konstantinos Paleologos; Theatro III. Tragodies me diafora themata: Capodistrias, Christoforos Colomvos, Sodoma ke Gomorra, Voudas)
    - Christopher Columbus (translated by Athena Gianakas Dallas, in Three Plays, 1969); Buddha (translated by Kimon Friar and Athena Dallis-Damis, 1983) 
  • Ho phtōchoulēs tou Theou, 1956
    - Saint Francis (translated by P.A. Bien, 1962) / God's Pauper (translated by P.A. Bien, 1962)
    - Pyhä köyhyys (suom. Aaro Peromies, Pentti Saarikoski, 1961)
  • Epistoles pros tē Galateia, 1958
    - The Suffering God (partial translation by Philip Ramp and Kathrina Anghelaki Rooke, 1978)
  • Le jardin des rochers, 1959 (written in French)
    - The Rock Garden (translated by Kimon Friar, 1963)
  • Tertsines, 1960
  • Taxideuontas, 1961
  • Anaphora ston Gkreko, 1961
    - Report to Greco (translated by P.A. Bien, 1965)
    - Tilinteko El Grecolle (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1966)
  • Hoi aderphophades, 1963
    - The Fratricides (translated by Athena Gianakas Dallas, 1964)
    - Veljesviha (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1967)
  • Ho phtōchoulēs tou Theou, 1964
    - God’s Pauper: St. Francis of Assisi: A Novel (translated from the Greek by P. A. Bien, 1975) 
  • Tetrakosia grammata tou Kazantzakē ston Prevelakē, 1965
  • Three Plays, 1969 (translated by Athena Gianakas Dallas)
  • Ho Kazantzakēs milei gia Theo, 1971
  • Symposion, 1971
    - Symposium (translated by Theodora Vasils and Themi Vasils, 1973)
  • Journeying: Travels in Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, 1975 (translated by Themi Vasils and Theodora Vasils)
  • Apo to poiētiko ergo tou Nikou Kazantzakē, 1977 (prologos Manolē Karellē; eisagōgē, anthologēsē, sēmeiomata Stylianou Alexiou; eikonographēse N. Chatzēkyriakou-Gkika)
  • Sta palatia tēs Knōsou: historiko mythistorēma gia paidia, 1981
    - At the Palace of Knossos (translated by Themi Vasils and Theodora Vasils, 1988)
  • Megas Alexandros: historiko mythistorēma gia paidia, 1979
    - Alexander the Great (translated by Theodora Vasils, 1981)
  • Ophis kai krino, 2002 (2nd ed., sēmeiōseis-scholia anti prologou epimeleia Patroklos Staurou)
  • Apo to poiētiko ergo tou Nikou Kazantzakē, 2010 (2nd ed., eisagōgē, anthologēsē, sēmeiōmata Stylianou Alexiou; eikones Nikou Chatzēkyriakou-Gkika)
  • Lēmmata tou Nikou Kazantzakē sto "Enkyklopaidikon Lexikon" Eleutheroudakē, 1927-1931, 2011 (eisagōgika semeiōmata, epimeleia Patroklos Staurou, Maria Giouroukou)
  • The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, 2012 (edited and translated by Peter Bien)

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