Nikos Kazantzakis was born on February 18, 1883 in Heraklion, Crete. He studied law at the University of Athens and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Widely acknowledged as one of the great writers of modern Greek literature, Kazantzakis was nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize in literature but never won.
He came very close in 1957 when he lost by one vote to the French writer Albert Camus who said that Kazantzakis deserved it a hundred times more than he did, as reported in The Philosophers’ Magazine. Kazantzakis is best known for his novels, though he also wrote plays, essays, and a popular series of travel books on the many places he visited including Spain, Japan, China, England, Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Cyprus, and Russia. He also wrote a travel book on Greece, Journey to Morea.
In honor of the author’s birthday, Zorba the Greek makes an excellent addition to any reading list, if you haven’t read it already in either the original Greek or in English translation. The novel, first published in 1946, is still a potent reminder of Kazantzakis’ talent as a writer. The recent English translation by Peter Bien was published in 2014 and replaces the previous English version first published in 1952.
The extraordinary novel and best-known work by Kazantzakis tells the story of the lively Alexis Zorba through the eyes of the bookish narrator as they embark on a business venture in Crete. The intellectual life contrasts sharply with the sensual life of experience, but somehow the friendship between the two men transcends their differences.
With an advanced degree from the school of life, the gregarious Zorba has a great deal to teach.
Other works by Kazantzakis to add to your reading list include Captain Michalis, published in 1953. The novel was translated into English as Freedom or Death in the United States in 1955.
The translated title, Eleftheria I Thanatos, is the national motto of Greece, and comes from the Greek War of Independence. The line is also used by the characters in the book, the Cretans fighting in the rebellion against Ottoman rule in 1889. The book has been translated into several languages including Arabic, Danish, German, French, Swedish, Turkish, and most recently into Croatian in 2014.
Among Kazantzakis’ nonfiction, Ascesis: The Saviors of God is a series of spiritual exercises. The essay begins with the line, “We came from an abyss of darkness; we end in an abyss of darkness: the interval of light between one and another we name life.” Kimon Friar, translator of many Kazantzakis’ works wrote about the importance of this book to the writing process for Kazantzakis, noting that the author finished writing The Saviors of God just before he began working on The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.
The book of spiritual exercises is, according to Friar, “where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he [Kazantzakis] set down the philosophy embedded not only in the Odyssey but in everything he has written, for he was a man of one overwhelming vision, striving to give it shape in all the forms he could master, in epic, drama, novel, travelogue, criticism, translation, and even political action.”
Kazantzakis’ books are available online and in most bookstores and public libraries.