Nikos Kazantzakis

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Although Nikos Kazantzakis himself always regarded The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel as his crowning achievement, he has received international acclaim primarily as a novelist; in addition, he is recognized in his own country and to a lesser extent throughout Europe as a playwright, essayist, translator, and writer of travel books. His travelogues of Russia, Spain, and Great Britain combine vivid description with political and cultural commentary. A prolific translator, he has provided his countrymen with modern Greek renditions of many Western writers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Jules Verne, Charles Darwin, Henri Bergson, and Dante. Kazantzakis collaborated on a modern Greek translation of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) and Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611). Kazantzakis’s published novels include Toda-Raba (1929; English translation, 1964); De tuin der Rotsen (1939, better known as Le Jardin des rochers; The Rock Garden, 1963); Vios kai politeia tou Alexe Zormpa (1946; Zorba the Greek, 1952); Ho Christos xanastauronetai (1954; The Greek Passion, 1953, also known as Christ Recrucified); Ho Kapetan Michales (1953; Freedom or Death, 1956; also known as Freedom and Death: A Novel); Ho teleutaios peirasmos (1955; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1960; also known as The Last Temptation); Ho phtochoules tou Theou (1956; Saint Francis, 1962).


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Though for English-speaking readers, Nikos Kazantzakis’s achievements as a novelist may continue to overshadow his performance as a poet, anyone wishing to understand the success of the novels both as literary masterpieces and as philosophical documents must turn to The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel to discover the roots of Kazantzakis’s genius.

Readers who become acquainted with Kazantzakis in translation cannot fully appreciate one of the most significant aspects of his work. Modern Greek is actually two languages: demotic, or spoken Greek, which is highly colloquial, and Katharevousa, or purist Greek, which is much more formal, containing many words not used in everyday speech. Among partisans of demotic, Kazantzakis was a member of the most radical group. He campaigned to have it adopted as the official language of the nation—the language used in schools. He wrote educational materials in demotic, as well as essays and popular articles advocating its use; he intransigently employed words and constructions rejected by all but the most extreme demoticists.

Nowhere is Kazantzakis’s passion for demotic demonstrated more clearly than in The Odyssey. He composed this masterwork over a period of fourteen years, during which he spent much time traveling the back roads of his own country, gathering words in the way a more traditional scholar might gather old letters or documents. Indeed, The Odyssey has been described by author Peter Bien as a repository of demotic words and phrases, an encyclopedic compendium of the spoken language gathering the pungent idioms of Greek fishermen and shepherds, country people and common folk.

Hence, at its best, The Odyssey has an immediacy and a freshness in its imagery that truly makes it a rival of its classical forebear. At its worst, however, as many critics have been quick to point out, the language of the poem violates the very principles that it is supposed to embody, for Kazantzakis’s extreme demoticism led him to employ many rare words—words which the Greek reader is unlikely to have encountered anywhere else, either in speech or in writing. Nevertheless, the popularity of The Odyssey with the general public in Greece attests the overall success of Kazantzakis’s project. The English-speaking reader is fortunate to have Kimon Friar’s gifted translation, which preserves the simple, colloquial nature of Kazantzakis’s original Greek. Friar also mirrors Kazantzakis’s meter in English by using iambic hexameter in his translation.

The ability to synthesize the apparently conflicting philosophical views of Nietzsche and Bergson and to transform this new...

(The entire section is 2,794 words.)