Nikos Kazantzakis Profile

Upon Carolyn’s recommendation, I recently watched the 1964 film Zorba the Greek, which I greatly enjoyed. The movie was based on the novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, who Carolyn has raved about for years. Kazantzakis has written many other critically acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction and is remembered today as one of Greece’s greatest writers.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion, the capital city of Crete, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Kazantzakis was the eldest of four children. His father was a farmer and animal feed dealer, who was described as “unsociable,” while his mother was described as “saintly.”

From 1902 to 1906 Kazantzakis studied law at the University of Athens and he graduated with honors. In 1907 he went to the Sorbonne in Paris to study philosophy. In Paris, he was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson and the idea that “a true understanding of the world comes from the combination of intuition, personal experience, and rational thought.” Kazantzakis’ 1909 doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne was on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and upon returning to Greece he began translating works of philosophy.

In 1906 Kazantzakis published his first work, an essay titled The Disease of the Century, which was published by Picture Gallery Magazine. That same year Kazantzakis also published his first book, The Serpent and Lily. Both the essay and the book were written under the pen name “Karma Nirvami,” which was one of the pseudonyms that Kazantzakis used during the first few years of his writing. His first play, Daybreak, was staged several months later at the Athenian Theater in Athens, and in 1909 he wrote a one-act play about existential themes called The Comedy.

Through the next several decades Kazantzakis traveled extensively throughout the world. He traveled around Greece and much of Europe— including Germany, Italy, France, The Netherlands, and Romania— as well as northern Africa, Egypt, Russia, Japan, and China. These travels put Kazantzakis in contact with different philosophies, ideologies, and lifestyles that would later influence his writing, as he often used his experiences to create vivid settings and characters in his works.

In 1919, Kazantzakis was appointed as the director general of the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare, although he only held this post for a year before resigning. However, during his service, he helped to feed and rescue over 150,000 Greek war victims.

In 1924 Kazantzakis first met Eleni Samiou, who was 21 years old at the time, and who devoted her life to helping Kazantzakis with his work. They began a romantic relationship around four years later, although they weren’t formally married until 1945. Samiou helped Kazantzakis by typing his drafts, commenting on his drafts before they were published, accompanying him on his travels, and managing his business affairs. They were married until his death.

In 1924 Kazantzakis also began working on an epic poem that was based on Homer’s “Odyssey,” which he retold from a contemporary perspective. Kazantzakis considered this to be his most important work. After fourteen years of writing and revision, it was finally published in 1938 as The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.

Kazantzakis also wrote several books about his own interpretation of Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy, such as “The Saviors of God,” a series of spiritual exercises that he wrote between 1922 and 1923 and was first published in 1927. “The Saviors of God” is today widely considered to be his greatest work of philosophy. It incorporates elements from Bergson, Marx, and Nietzsche, as well as Christianity and Buddhism.

Facing financial difficulty in 1934, to earn money Kazantzakis wrote three textbooks for the second and third grades. The Greek Ministry of Education adopted one of them and his financial concerns were alleviated for a time.

In the following years, Kazantzakis wrote some of his most acclaimed works, which established him as a major Modern Greek writer. In 1946 his most famous novel, Zorba the Greek, was published. The novel beautifully contrasts the sensual and intellectual facets of human nature. It is a transformative story of a young writer who ventures off to escape his bookish, intellectual life, with the unexpected aid of a charismatic and boisterous, passionate, and mysterious peasant and musician named Alexis Zorba. The novel was adapted into the wonderful 1964 film starring Anthony Quinn that I mentioned earlier, and it won three Academy Awards.

Kazantzakis was spiritually inclined, but he had some issues with his Greek Orthodox Christian faith. As a child, he was baptized within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and he was drawn to the stories of saints. Many scholars and critics say that his works center on a search for spiritual and religious truth. Kazantzakis was exposed to different religious belief systems, like Buddhism, during his travels, influencing him to doubt his Christian faith. Although he never denied it, his criticism of Christianity caused tension within the Greek Orthodox Church and with his critics. In 1948 Kazantzakis wrote The Last Temptation of Christ and Christ Recrucified, his most controversial works, which are about questioning Christian values. The Last Temptation of Christ was condemned by the Catholic Church and was not published until 1956.

Kazantzakis’s novel Report to Greco was written in 1945, but not published until 1961. It’s an autobiographical work, and it explores Kazantzakis’s spiritual quest and his search for what he called a “new man.” In 1949 he wrote The Greek Passion, a play set during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22. Kazantzakis traveled extensively throughout this period, spending time in France, Austria, Italy, Germany, and the United States.

In 1953 Kazantzakis published The Greek Passion, which is a novel about a village’s struggle to cope with the Greek Civil War. Kazantzakis was also a prolific translator, translating works by Dante, Shakespeare, and many other writers into the Modern Greek language. He translated a number of notable works including The Divine Comedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Origin of Species, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

In addition to his widely acclaimed novels, memoirs, philosophical essays, and translations, Kazantzakis also wrote travel books and he lectured widely. Kazantzakis was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for nine different years but never won. In 1957 he lost the Prize to Albert Camus by a single vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honor “a hundred times more” than himself. 

Kazantzakis died in 1957, in Germany, after a return flight from Asia. He is buried in Crete, at the highest point of the Walls of Heraklion, the Martinengo Bastion, which looks out over the mountains and the Sea of Crete. Kazantzakis’ epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

In 1968 Eleni Samiou published a biography of her husband— Nikos Kazantzakis— The Uncompromising — which contains the story of Nikos’ life and a large number of their letters.

In 2007 a euro collectors’ coin, the €10 Euro Greek Nikos Kazantzakis commemorative coin, was minted for the 50th anniversary of his death. His image is on the obverse of the coin, while the reverse carries the National Emblem of Greece with his signature. In 2017, on the 60th anniversary of his death, the €2 Euro Greece Grecia with his image was also minted.

In 2022, 65 years after the death of Kazantzakis, fans of his work rejoiced, when his final novel Aniforos was first published. The manuscript had been kept at the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum in the author’s home village of Mirtia, Crete since its rediscovery. Aniforos was written right after Zorba the Greek in 1946, and is filled with autobiographical references and reflections on his firsthand experience of World War II.

Some of the quotes that Nikos Kazantzakis is known for include:

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.

The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet.

A man needs a little madness, or else… he never dares cut the rope and be free.

You can knock on a deaf man’s door forever.

Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.

I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.

You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint the paradise, then in you go.

Once, I saw a bee drown in honey, and I understood.

by David Jay Brown

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