Nikos Kazantzakis

The Greek author, journalist, and statesman Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is considered the foremost figure in modern Greek literature. His work is marked by his search for God and immortality.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born on Feb. 18, 1883, in the town of Hērákleion, Crete, where he received his elementary and secondary education. His father was a primitive peasant, unsociable and uncommunicative, and his mother a sweet, submissive, and saintly woman. Nikos studied law in Athens (1902-1906) and graduated with honors. Before he left for Paris, where he studied philosophy (1907-1909), he had already made an appearance in Greek letters. His first work, an essay entitled "The Disease of the Century," was published by Picture Gallery Magazine and was followed by his first novel, The Serpent and the Lily (both 1906). Both works were under the pseudonym Carma Nirvani, one of the many he used the first years of his writing. His first play, Daybreak, was staged several months later at the Athenian Theater in Athens.

Early Career

While in Paris, Kazantzakis served as journalist for various Greek magazines. By 1910 he had completed a trilogy—Broken Souls, The Empress Zoe, and God-Man; a drama, The Master Mason (which won an award); and another play, The Comedy. The last two were published under the pseudonym Petros Psiloritis. In 1911, after a stormy relationship, he married Galatea Alexiou, a writer, and together they continued their writing in a small apartment in Athens.

During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) Kazantzakis volunteered but served noncombatively with Special Services in the Premier's office. By 1916 he had written two more plays, Hercules and Theofano (he later developed the latter into Nikiforos Phocas), and mapped out three more. The Master Mason was staged as a musical drama at the Municipal Theater in Athens. By now his interest in Friedrich Nietzsche was at its peak, and he set off on a pilgrimage to Switzerland, visiting and studying the places associated with this philosopher. By 1920 Kazantzakis, now 37 years of age, was still undecided about his destiny. He felt he was an Odysseus who would never reach his Ithaca.

The years 1922-1924 were critical for Kazantzakis. He carried his inner struggles to Vienna and later Berlin. In Vienna he began to write the theatrical work Buddha (which after many revisions and additions was published in Athens in 1956) and completed the final draft of his romantic novel A Year of Loneliness (unpublished). In Berlin he drafted Saviours of God, a philosophic work into which he poured his longing for immortality and his belief that man's dedication to creative activity alone can save God.

In 1924 Kazantzakis completed Buddha and began Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. That summer he met Helen Samiou, a young Greek journalist, who later became his second wife. In November 1925 he went to the Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent for the Athenian newspaper Free Speech. Here he was greatly influenced by the new Russian movement. He then undertook new journeys—to Palestine and Cyprus (April-May 1926); Spain (August-September 1926); Italy (October 1926); where he had an audience with Mussolini; Egypt and Sinai (December 1926-January 1927). His journalistic interest in political events was a concession to the newspaper organizations which provided him with travel funds. In 1927 he settled for a short while on the island of Aegina to arrange selections from his travelogs into volumes that were later to appear as Travels— Spain, Italy, and so on.

In April 1928 Kazantzakis left again for the Soviet Union, where he wrote a screenplay for a Russian film entitled The Red Kerchief. (Its theme was the Greek Revolution of 1821.) Helen Samiou joined him, and together they toured the northern Soviet Union. From then on the couple were never separated except for short periods. Kazantzakis claimed that he owed his happiness to Helen and that without her he would have died many years sooner. She dedicated her life to him, acting as wife, secretary, nurse, companion, friend. In 1930 he worked on his History of Russian Literature. By 1932 he completed the manuscripts of Buddha, Don Quixote, Muhammed, The Ten Days, and the first draft of his Greek translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Later Years

In 1936 Kazantzakis wrote two novels in French: The Rock Gardenand Mon Père. (The latter was incorporated 14 years later in Freedom or Death. ) By 1937 he had completed the seventh rewrite of his Odyssey; a new play, Melissa; and three cantas: Alexander the Great Christ, and Grandfather-Father-Grandson. He spent all of 1938 working on the final draft of the Odyssey, and in December of that year it was finally published in Athens. In 1941 he began his famous novel Zorba the Greek. In 1943 he completed Zorba and three plays, the Prometheus Trilogy: Prometheus the Firebearer, Prometheus Bound, and Prometheus Freed. Despite the hardships of the German occupation of Greece, his writing was not affected. He and Helen spent the occupation years on the island of Aegina, where he wrote feverishly. He completed a modern translation of Homer's Iliad and began his modern Greek translation of Homer's Odyssey. He brought all his manuscripts up to date and in 1944 he wrote the plays Kapodistria and Constantine Paleologos. When the German occupation ended, he returned to Athens and became active in various socialist groups. In August he was made president of the Socialist Workers Union and married Helen Samiou in the Greek Orthodox Church. A few months later he was appointed a minister in the Sofouli government of Greece and served until his resignation in 1946. Soon afterward, he and his wife took up residence in Paris. This was the beginning of their self-exile from Greece; Kazantzakis believed that his country had denied him too many times; he would continue his work on foreign shores.

In 1948 Kazantzakis wrote the play Sodom and Gomorrha. In July he began his famous novel Christ Recrucified, titled The Greek Passion in the English translation. By September the novel was completed, but, as was his custom, he did a full rewrite of the book by December. In 1949 he wrote The Fratricides. In April he wrote the play Theseus, which was published as Kouros From May to July he wrote the play Christopher Columbus, and the next 2 months were spent rewriting Constantine Paleologos. In December he began Freedom or Death and completed the second rewrite by July 1950. He completed The Last Temptation of Christ by July 1951. In 1953, although in poor health, he completed St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican issued an edict against The Last Temptation of Christ in April 1954. Kazantzakis replied with a telegram, quoting Tertullian: "In Your Courtroom, Lord, I Appeal." Among his last works was his spiritual semiautobiography, Report to Greco (1955).

Kazantzakis died on Oct. 26, 1957. He was buried in the town of his birth. A plain wooden cross marks his grave with the epitaph he had requested: "I have nothing … I fear nothing … I am free."

Further Reading on Nikos Kazantzakis

Two studies of Kazantzakis are Pandelis Prevelakis, Nikos Kazantzakis and His Odyssey: A Study of the Poet and the Poem (trans. 1961), and Helen Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography Based on His Letters (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Bien, Peter, Nikos Kazantzakis, New York, Columbia University Press, 1972.