Nikos Kazantzakis was Greece’s most prolific writer and remains in history as one of the most famous contemporary Greeks, worldwide. He published dozens of novels, poems, plays and short stories and his works have been translated into practically every written language on the planet. His most famous work is, by far, Zorba the Greek, which was turned into a film in 1964. Here are some fascinating things about the Greek writer’s life– and death, to celebrate his birthday, February 18, 1883.
Kazantzakis dabbled in communism, atheism and numerous radical ideologies, making him one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century.
He was born a citizen of the Ottoman Empire on February 18, 1883, while Crete was still under Turkish rule.
Kazantzakis’ most famous novel, Zorba the Greek (Originally called ‘The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas’) was about a real-life friend of his named Yorgis Zorbas, who taught him how to love life and not fear death. Kazantzakis wrote the novel in 1941 after he learned of his friend’s death because he wanted to keep his memory and life lessons alive, even beyond his death.
At a 1999 auction, a first edition (1946) signed copy of Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek” was estimated to get £250 but sold for £4,250 ($6,035). It was the first time in 35 years that a copy of the original Greek first edition has surfaced. In 2005 an inscribed first French (1947) edition made £900 in a Sotheby’s sale and that same year a copy of the 1953 first U.S. edition, once owned by the novelist Bernard Malamud, brought $360 at Christie’s New York.
The highest sale price for any Kazantzakis book was in $3,220, at Christie’s auction in New York in 1999, for a 1960, U.S. edition of his most controversial novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Why the big price? The book had belonged to Marilyn Monroe.
Kazantzakis’ book “The Last Temptation of Christ” was one of the most controversial books of all time, often appearing on “banned books” lists and even prompting official condemnation from both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, prompting one 1950s writer to remark that it was the first time since 1054 that the two Churches had agreed on anything.
In 1954, the Roman Catholic Pope himself placed the book on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. Kazantzakis telegraphs the Vatican, personally, a phrase from the Christian apologist Tertullian: “Ad tuum, Domine, tribunal appello” (I lodge my appeal at your tribunal, Lord), basically telling the Catholic Church that God will be his final judge and not some worldly institution like the Church.
Controversy followed more than three decades later when Martin Scorsese made the book into a film in 1988. Widespread protest from Christian fundamentalists in the United States spread. The film was banned outright in more than a dozen nations around the world, including Turkey, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines and Singapore. In Paris, a cinema that wouldn’t give in to protestors to cancel the premier was torched by Christian demonstrators.
In 1957, he lost the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus by one vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honor “a hundred times more” than himself. In total Kazantzakis was nominated in nine different years.
Kazantzakis’ literature has resulted in three Academy Awards and eight nominations. The film version of Zorba the Greek by director Michael Cacoyiannis got seven nominations and won three awards in 1964. Martin Scorsese was nominated for Best Director for his adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.
Captain Michalis is Kazantzakis’ second most widely known and published novel, after Zorba. Published in 1953, the book tells the story of a rebellion of the people of Crete against the Turks in 1889. The book was published under the title Freedom or Death in the United Kingdom and in subsequent English editions. The book has been translated and published into almost 3 dozen languages— including Turkish.
Kazantzakis’ literary work was condemned by many in the Greek Orthodox Church and a movement was undertaken to excommunicate him that reached the Ecumenical Patriarch (Athenagoras) who rejected the proposal. His response to those clergy and bishops who sought to excommunicate him: “You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I” (Greek: “Μου δώσατε μια κατάρα, Άγιοι πατέρες, σας δίνω κι εγώ μια ευχή: Σας εύχομαι να ‘ναι η συνείδηση σας τόσο καθαρή, όσο είναι η δική μου και να ‘στε τόσο ηθικοί και θρήσκοι όσο είμαι εγώ”).
Even though Kazantzakis was never excommunicated, he remained a controversial figure for his spiritual and political views— even after his death. The Orthodox Church ruled out his burial in a cemetery and thus, was buried inside the rampart walls that surround the city of Heraklion, the place of his birth. His epitaph has become one of the most famous phrases in Greek history. Etched in stone it reads “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” (Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβἀμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λέφτερος.)
Kazantzakis died in Breisgau, Germany on October 26, 1957 and when his body arrived in Athens, the Greek Orthodox Church refused it to lie in state and the body was transferred to Crete, where it is viewed at the St. Minas Cathedral before a funeral and massive procession through the city to the wall where he was buried on November 5, 1956.