Fifty-six years ago today, on October 26, 1957, Greek novelist and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis died of leukemia in Frieburg, West Germany. Although not well known among English-speaking readers, the death of Kazantzakis was a tremendous loss for world literature. He was not only a terrific writer and thinker, but also a very interesting human being.
The reason Kazantzakis is not a household name in the non-Greek world is probably due to the fact that he was not awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he came close–in fact, as close as anyone can come. Nominated in 1957, the year of his death, he lost the prize to Albert Camus by one vote. Nevertheless, Kazantzakis was probably Greece’s greatest 20th century writer. His 1964 novel Zorba the Greek was made into a successful movie later in the 1960s, and eventually even a musical. Thirty years after his death, one of Kazantzakis’s lesser-known novels at the time of its publication, The Last Temptation of Christ, was made into a movie by Italian-American director Martin Scorsese, which triggered a violent backlash by the religious right upon its release in the United States in 1988.
If there’s one thing that seems to have animated Kazantzakis’s life, it is wandering in search of answers. Nikos was born in 1883 as an Ottoman Turkish subject, though he was from Heraklion–an old Byzantine province–and ethnically Greek. He traveled and wandered incessantly during his life, usually in search of spiritual, philosophical or political answers. Early in his life he was attracted by Nietzschean philosophy and eventually socialism, but he was later disillusioned by the latter ideology after the rise of Stalin. He traveled extensively in Europe during and after World War I and incorporated his travels into the epic poem he considered his most important work, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. That’s exactly what it sounds like: a continuation of the adventures of Odysseus, but written as a modern allegory.
Two books by Nikos Kazantzakis, one a Greek edition, the other English.
Kazantzakis’s complicated relationship with Christianity was the subject of The Last Temptation of Christ, which depicts a very human Jesus torn between his religious duty and his strong desires to live a human life, love, have children and remain fulfilled. I began reading this book about 1990, and I couldn’t quite finish it, but my own religious questionings of late may motivate me to return to it. Kazantzakis was denounced by both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, one of the few times since the schism of 1054 that these two organizations have ever agreed on anything.
Like Borges, whose work I also admire, Nikos Kazantzakis seems to be exactly the kind of writer I would love to be someday: defined by his ideas, his questions, and his intellectual quests. There is no higher duty for a person of letters, in my opinion. I hope more English-language readers eventually discover Kazantzakis’s work, which is more timely now than ever.
I highly recommend visiting the on-line museum of Nikos Kazantzakis (which has an English language option). It has some pretty cool stuff.