Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957)

The Heroic Pessimist

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Candia (Heraklion) in Crete and died in 1957 in Freiburg, Germany. He is the most important and most translated Greek writer and philosopher of the 20th century. He studied law at the University of Athens from 1902 and Philosophy in Paris from 1907. In 1911 Kazantzakis married Galatea Alexiou. They divorced in 1926. In 1945 he married Eleni Samiou. Most of his life he travelled extensively and lived in many different places outside Greece. While living in Berlin Kazantzakis discovered communism and became an admirer of Lenin. He visited the Soviet Union but witnessed the rise of Joseph Stalin, and became disillusioned with communism.

Kazantzakis was always concerned with existential, spiritual and metaphysical questions. Another Greek writer, Pandelis Prevelakis, described his thinking as 'heroic pessimism'. He was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and atheism but also concerned with religion. The figure of Jesus has a prominent place in much of his work. Like in 'The Last Temptation of Christ' where Jesus is portrayed as an emotional human being who has a mission, with a meaning, he is struggling to understand. He is portrayed not as an infallible deity but as a human whose internal struggle represents that of humanity.

His most famous novels include 'Zorba the Greek' from 1946 'The Greek Passion' from 1948 and 'Freedom and Death' from 1950. 'The Last Temptation of Christ' from 1951 and 'God's Pauper: St. Francis of Assisi' from 1956. Finally, 'Report to Greco' from 1961 contains both autobiographical and fictional elements. This book sums up Katzantzakis philosophy. Kazantzakis himself considered his enormous epic poem (it is 33.333 verses long) 'The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel' to be his most important work. He began writing it in 1924, but rewrote it seven times before it was finally published in 1938.

Four times he was nominated for the Nobel price of literature but he never won the prize. In 1957, when he had lost the Prize to Albert Camus by one vote, Camus said that Kazantzakis deserved the honour 'a hundred times more' than himself. He is buried on the wall surrounding the city of Heraklion. The Orthodox Church denied him a burial in a cemetery because of his view on religion. Religious conservatives condemned Kazantzakis' work. For example 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was included by the Roman Catholic Church in the 'Index of Prohibited Books' just like - many years later - many cinemas banned the 1988 film by Martin Scorsese based on this novel. His epitaph quotes the metaphysical manifesto 'Askitiki' from 1927:

"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free" (Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα, δεν φοβάμαι τίποτα, είμαι ελεύθερος.)

Zorba - the Film

Kazantzakis became worldwide known in 1964 when Michael Cacoyannis released his film 'Zorba the Greek', based on Kazantzakis' novel of the same name. The little sequence that you can watch here is the famous 'dance scene' with the musical score by Mikis Theodorakis.

Kazantzakis in Crete

The Nikos Kazantzakis Museum, Crete is located in the village of Myrtia, 15 kilometres south of Heraklion. The Museum holds manuscripts and notes by the author, samples of his correspondence, first editions of his works in Greek and other languages, photographic material and souvenirs from his travels, personal effects, material from theatre productions of his works, portraits and sculptures of the author. You can visit the homepage of the museum here.

At the Historical Museum of Crete a reconstruction and exhibition of Nikos Kazantzakis' study, exactly as it was in Antibes, France, where the author spent the last years of his life (1948-1957) has been created. The exhibition includes manuscripts, photographs and drawings, hundreds of editions of his works – translated into over thirty languages - and personal possessions.

A compilation of the Nikos Kazantzakis archive at the Historical Museum of Crete is available on the internet. You can access the pages here: 'The Nikos Kazantzakis Files'.

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