Nikos Kazantzakis Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(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...

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The Nature of Odysseus as Hero

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Perhaps the best way to appreciate both the poetry and the philosophy of Kazantzakis’s epic is to examine the nature of his hero. Though modeled closely on Homer’s Odysseus, Kazantzakis’s Odysseus carries a greater symbolic load than his classical predecessor. First, he is a representative of the author himself. During the years when Kazantzakis was first composing the poem, he once referred to himself as “Don Odysseus,” and indeed the experiences Kazantzakis gleaned from a lifetime of travel are embodied in his hero. Furthermore, Odysseus is presented as a type of Everyman—or better, of existential man. His external travels are paralleled by the internal struggle he constantly faces within himself as he tries to free himself from the entanglements of the flesh and “ascend to God.” Odysseus is constantly reminding himself and others that nothing in life has any real meaning, but the struggle to establish meaning (even while knowing that the attempt will end in failure) motivates him and gives him real stature among men.

Always fond of adjectives, Kazantzakis uses them lavishly to describe Odysseus. The epithets that characterize Kazantzakis’s hero reveal similarities with his Homeric predecessor and establish his position as a Kazantzakian seeker for God and truth. At times, he is the crafty, ruthless warrior of Homer’s Odyssey, called by various sobriquets: “archer,” “fox-minded man,” “much-traveled man,” “worldwide roamer,” “double faced,” “resourceful,” “sly,” “swifthanded.” He is, unlike the classical Odysseus, also a “soul seizer,” “soul leader,” “deep-sighted man,” the “man of seven souls,” often a “heaven baiter” and a “mind battler.” He takes on the characteristics of other famous characters, or meets with them in various guises in the course of his wanderings. In the crucial books of the poem immediately preceding the construction of his ideal city (books 12 through 15), he shares many characteristics...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Long before he began writing the novels for which he won international acclaim, Nikos Kazantzakis (kah-zahnt-ZAH-kees) had established a reputation in his own country and, to a lesser extent, throughout Europe as a playwright, essayist, translator, and poet. For years, he earned his living by writing about the many countries he visited and translating classics of Western civilization into his native tongue. His travelogues of Russia, Spain, and England combine vivid descriptions of these countries with observations on the political and cultural climate he found there. In addition to his original compositions, he translated a number of important works into modern Greek, among them philosophical writings of Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche, Jules Verne’s novels, Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1833). For fourteen years, he wrote and revised Odysseia (1938; The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958), a thirty-three thousand-line continuation of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e; English translation, 1614), showing Odysseus, still driven to wander in search of new experiences, traveling throughout the Mediterranean region and over the world in search of personal fulfillment.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The achievements of Nikos Kazantzakis as a novelist lie in two areas: his use of native demotic Greek as a medium of fiction and his transformation of philosophical materials into art. The most revolutionary aspect of Kazantzakis’s writing is often lost in translations of his work. Early in his career, he opted to write in demotic Greek, the colloquial language spoken by Greek workers, farmers, and fishermen. This devotion to the language of the common people often caused him to meet with sharp criticism from academics and other purists, who insisted that “acceptable” literature be written in a form of Greek highly stylized and often barely readable by the masses. Though some of his travel writing and midcareer imaginative literature was written originally in French, Kazantzakis always sided with those in his country who wanted written Greek literature to mirror the living speech of the country. The Odyssey and his novels beginning with Zorba the Greek are written in the colloquial form of his native language; in fact, The Odyssey has been described by Peter Bien as a repository of demotic words and phrases, a kind of gloss on modern spoken Greek. The popularity of his works among the general public in Greece attests the success he has had in achieving his aim.

Another of Kazantzakis’s major achievements is his capability to transform philosophy into art. The metaphysics of Nietzsche and Bergson find life in the...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Identify the means by which Nikos Kazantzakis was able to vivify Greek literature.

Did the 1964 film Zorba the Greek interpret Kazantzakis’s novel accurately?

Have recent studies of Kazantzakis’s work modified the outrage that greeted The Last Temptation of Christ?

Is Kazantzakis’s career a validation of the pursuit of impractical ideas?

Can conventional Christians learn anything about religion from Kazantzakis?


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Bien, Peter. Kazantzakis: Politics of Spirit. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. This study focuses on the evolution of Kazantzakis’s personal philosophy up to the point of his publication in 1938 of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Properly documented with a rich international bibliography, a detailed chronology, and an index of names and titles.

Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972. A reliable scholarly introduction to Kazantzakis’s life and work, with a useful bibliography.

Bien, Peter. Nikos Kazantzakis, Novelist. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 1989. A good study of the Greek author. Contains a...

(The entire section is 531 words.)