Biography of Nikos Kazantzakis

Peter Bien, Kazantzakis. Politics of the spirit.
Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press 1989 : pp. xvii-xxiv.


1883. Kazantzakis is born on 18th February / 3rd March** in Iraklion, Crete, then still part of the Ottoman Empire. His father, Mihalis, a dealer in agricultural products and wine, is from Varvari, now the site of the Kazantzakis Museum. Much later, Mihalis is to become one of the models for Kapetan Mihalis in the novel Freedom or Death.

1889. Cretan rebels attempt unsuccessfully to win the island’s freedom from the Turks. The Kazantzakis family flees to Greece for six months.

1897-1898. Another Cretan rebellion – this time successful. Nikos is sent for safety to the island of Naxos, where he is enrolled in a school run by French monks. This begins his love of the French language.

1902. Having completed his secondary education in Iraklion, Kazantzakis moves to Athens to study law.

1906. Even before taking his degree, Kazantzakis publishes the essay The Sickness of the Century and the novel Serpent and Lily; he also writes the play Day Is Breaking.

1907. Day Is Breaking wins a drama prize and is produced in Athens, stirring up much controversy. The young Kazantzakis becomes instantaneously famous. He begins his journalistic career and is initiated as a Freemason. In October he commences graduate studies in Paris, where he continues to write both journalism and serious literature.

1908. In Paris, he attends Henri Bergson’s lectures, reads Nietzsche, and completes the novel Broken Souls.

1909. He finishes his dissertation on Nietzsche and writes the play The Master Builder. Returning to Crete via Italy, he publishes his dissertation, the one-act play Comedy, and the essay Has Science Gone Bankrupt? As president of the Solomos Society of Iraklion, a lobby advocating the adoption of the demotic language (that is, the language spoken by the common people) in the schools and the abandonment of the puristic language called “katharevusa”, Kazantzakis writes a long manifesto on linguistic reform that is published in an Athenian periodical.

1910. His essay For Our Youth hails Ion Dragoumis, another demoticist, as the prophet who will guide Greece to new glory by insisting that it must overcome its subservience to ancient Greek culture. Kazantzakis and Galatea Alexiou, an Iraklion author and intellectual, begin to live together in Athens, without marrying. He earns his bread by translating from French, German, English, and ancient Greek. He becomes a founding member of the Educational Association, the most important lobby for demoticism.

1911. He marries Galatea.

1912. He introduces Bergson’s philosophy to Greek intellectuals by means of a long lecture delivered to members of the Educational Association and later published in the association’sBulletin. When the first Balkan War breaks out, he volunteers for the army and is assigned to Prime Minister Venizelos’ private office.

1914. He and the poet Angelos Sikelianos journey together to Mount Athos, where they remain for forty days at various monasteries. He reads Dante, the Gospels, and Buddha there; he and Sikelianos dream of founding a new religion. To earn a living, he writes children’s books in collaboration with Galatea.

1915. Again with Sikelianos, he tours Greece. In his diary he writes, “My three great teachers: Homer, Dante, Bergson. “In retreat at a monastery, he completes a book (now lost), probably on the Holy Mountain. He notes in his diary that his motto is “come l’ uom s’ eterna” (how man saves himself – from Dante’s Inferno 15.85). He most likely writes the plays Christ, Odisseas, and Nikiforos Fokas in first draft. In order to sign a contract for harvesting wood from Mount Athos, he travels to Thessaloniki in October. There he witnesses the British and French forces as they disembark to fight on the Salonica Front in World War I. In the same month, reading Tolstoy, he decides that religion is more important than literature and vows to begin where Tolstoy left off.

1917. Because of the need for even low-grade coal during the war, Kazantzakis engages a workman named George Zorbas and attempts to mine lignite in the Peloponnesus. This experience, combined with the 1915 scheme for harvesting wood, develops much later into the novel Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas (Zorba the Greek). In September he travels to Switzerland, where he resides as the guest of Yannis Stavridakis, the Greek consul in Zurich.

1918. He goes on pilgrimage in Switzerland to the sites associated with Nietzsche. He forms an attachment to another intellectual Greek woman, Elli Lambridi.

1919. Prime Minister Venizelos appoints Kazantzakis Director General of the Ministry of Welfare, with the specific mission of repatriating 150.000 Greeks who are being persecuted by the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus. In July Kazantzakis departs with his team, which includes Stavridakis and Zorbas. In August he travels to Versailles to report to Venizelos, then participating in the negotiations for the peace treaty. Afterwards, Kazantzakis proceeds to Macedonia and Thrace to oversee the installation of the refugees in villages there. These experiences are used much later in Christ Recrucified (The Greek Passion).

1920. The assassination of Dragoumis on 31 July (O.S.) dismays Kazantzakis. When Venizelos’ Liberal Party is defeated at the polls in November, he resigns from the Ministry of Welfare and departs for Paris.

1921. He tours Germany, returning to Greece in February.

1922. An advance contract with an Athenian publisher for a series of school textbooks enables him to leave Greece again. He remains in Vienna from 19 May until the end of August. There he contracts a facial eczema that the dissident Freudian therapist Wilhelm Stekel calls “the saints’ disease.” In the midst of Vienna’s postwar decadence, he studies Buddhistic scriptures and begins a play on Buddha’s life. He also studies Freud and sketches out Askitiki. September finds him in Berlin, where he learns about Greece’s utter defeat by the Turks, the so called “Asia Minor disaster”. Abandoning his previous nationalism, he aligns himself with communist revolutionaries. He is influenced in particular by Rahel Lipstein and her cell group of radical young women. Tearing up his uncompleted play Buddha, he begins it again in a new form. He also begins Askitiki, his attempt to reconcile communist activism with Buddhist resignation. His dream being to settle in the Soviet Union, he takes Russian lessons.

1923. The period in Vienna and Berlin is well documented owing to copious letters from Kazantzakis to Galatea, who continues to reside in Athens. Kazantzakis completes Askitiki in April and resumes work on Buddha. In June he goes on pilgrimage to Nietzsche’s birthplace, Naumburg.

1924. Spending three months in Italy, Kazantzakis visits Pompeii, which becomes one of his obsessive symbols; then he settles in Assisi, completes Buddha there, and commences his lifelong discipleship to Saint Francis. Soon after his return to Athens he meets Eleni Samiou. Back in Iraklion, he becomes the guru of a communist cell of disgruntled refugees and veterans from the Asia Minor campaign. He begins to plan the Odyssey and he perhaps writes Symposium.

1925. His political involvement lead to his arrest, but he is detained for only twenty-four hours. He writes cantos 1-6 of Odyssey. His relationship with Eleni Samiou deepens. In October he leaves for the Soviet Union as correspondent for an Athenian newspaper, which publishes his impressions in a series of long articles.

1926. He and Galatea are divorced; she continues her professional career under the name Galatea Kazantzaki even after she remarries. He travels to Palestine and Cyprus, again as a newspaper correspondent. In August he journeys to Spain to interview Primo de Rivera, the Spanish dictator; October finds him in Rome interviewing Mussolini. In November he meets Pandelis Prevelakis, his future disciple, literary agent, confidant, and biographer.

1927. He visits Egypt and Sinai, again as a newspaper correspondent. In May he isolates himself on Aegina in order to complete the Odyssey. Immediately afterwards he hastily composes scores of encyclopedia articles to earn a living, then collects his travel articles for the first volume of Taksidevondas (Journeying). Dimitrios Glinos’s periodical Anayennisi ( Renaissance) publishes Askitiki. In late October Kazantzakis travels to Russia once again, this time as the guest of the Soviet government on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. He encounters Henri Barbusse. He delivers a bellicose speech at a Peace Symposium. In November he meets Panait Istrati, a Greek-Romanian writer then very much in vogue in France. With Istrati and others he tours the Caucasus. The two friends vow to share a life of political and intellectual action in the Soviet Union. In December Kazantzakis brings Istrati to Athens and introduces him to the Greek public via a newspaper article.

1928. On January 11, Kazantzakis and Istrati address a throng in the Alhambra Theater, praising the Soviet experiment. This leads to a demostration in the streets. Kazantzakis and Dimitrios Glinos, who organized the event, are threatened with legal action, Istrati with deportation. April finds both Istrati and Kazantzakis back in Russia, in Kiev, where Kazantzakis writes a film scenario on the Russian Revolution. In Moscow in June, Kazantzakis and Istrati meet Gorki. Kazantzakis changes the ending of Askitiki, adding the ” Silence”. He writes articles for Pravda about social conditions in Greece, then undertakes another scenario, this time on the life of Lenin. Traveling with Istrati to Murmansk, he passes through Leningrad and meets Victor Serge. In July, Barbusse’s periodical Monde publishes a profile of Kazantzakis by Istrati; this is Kazantzakis’s first introduction to the European reading public. At the end of August, Kazantzakis and Istrati joined by Eleni Samiou and Istrati’s companion Bilili Baud-Bovy, undertake a long journey in southern Russia with the object of co-authoring a series of articles entitled “Following the Red Star”. But the two friends become increasingly estranged. Their differences are brought to a boil in December by the “Roussakov affair,” that is, the persecution of Victor Serge and his father-in-law, Roussakov, as Trotskyists. In Athens, a publisher brings out Kazantzakis’ Russian travel articles in two volumes.

1929. Alone now, Kazantzakis continues his travels across the length and breadth of Russia. In April he departs for Berlin, where he lectures on the Soviet Union and attempts to publish articles. In May he settles in a remote farmhouse in Czechoslovakia to write, in French, the novel first entitled “Moscou a crie” and then renamed Toda-Raba. This recounts his recent vicissitudes in Russia, only minimally disguised. He also completes a novel in French called “Kapetan Elia,” one of the many precursors to Kapetan Mihalis. These are his first attempts to develop a career in western Europe. At the same time, he undertakes a basic revision of the Odyssey in order to reflect his changed view of the Soviet Union.

1930. To earn money, he produces a two-volume “History of Russian Literature” that is published in Athens. The Greek authorities threaten to bring him to trial for atheism on account of Askitiki. Kazantzakis remains abroad, first in Paris, then in Nice, where he translates French children’s books for Athenian publishers.

1931. Back in Greece, he settles again on Aegina, working on a French-Greek dictionary (demotic as well as katharevusa). In June, in Paris, he visits the Colonial Exhibition; this gives him fresh ideas for the African scenes in the Odyssey, whose third draft he completes in his hideaway in Czechoslovakia.

1932. Kazantzakis and Prevelakis plan a collaboration to alleviate their financial woes. This involves film scenarios and translations. The plan is largely unsuccessful. Among other things, Kazantzakis translates the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy into Greek terza rima in 45 days. He moves to Spain in an effort to make a career there. He begins by translating Spanish poetry for an anthology.

1933. He writes his impressions of Spain. He completes a terzina on his “general,” El Greco – the germ of his future autobiography, Report to Greco. Unable to support himself in Spain, he returns to Aegina, where he undertakes a fourth draft of the Odyssey. After revising his Dante translation, he composes a set of terzinas.

1934. To earn money, he writes three textbooks for second and third grades. When one of these is adopted by the Ministry of Education, his financial woes are alleviated for a time.

1935. After completing the fifth draft of the Odyssey, he sails for Japan and China in order to write more travel articles. Upon his return he purchases some land in Aegina.

1936. Still attempting to establish a career outside of Greece, Kazantzakis writes, in French, the novel Le Jardin des rochers (The Rock Garden), drawing upon his recent experiences in the Far East. He also completes a new version of the Kapetan Mihalis theme, calling it “Mon pere.” For money, he translates Pirandello’s Questa sera si recita a soggetto (Tonight We Improvise) for the Royal Theater; he then turns out his own Pirandellesque play, “Othello Returns,” which remains unknown during his lifetime. Next, he translates Goethe’s Faust, Part I. During October and November he is in war-torn Spain as a correspondent; he interviews both Franco and Unamuno. His home in Aegina is completed. This is his first permanent residence.

1937. In Aegina, he completes the sixth draft of the Odyssey. His travel book on Spain is published. In September he tours the Peloponnesus. His impressions are published in article form; later they will become Journey to the Morea. He writes the tragedy Melissa for the Royal Theater.

1938. After the eighth and final draft of the Odyssey, he supervises the printing of the epic in a sumptuous edition. Publication takes place at the end of December. He suffers again from the facial eczema that occurred in Vienna in 1922.

1939. He plans a new epic in 33.333 verses to be called Akritas. From July through November he is in England as a guest of the British Council. While residing in Stratford-on-Avon he writes the tragedy Julian the Apostate.

1940. He writes England and continues to sketch out Akritas and to revise “Mon pere”. To earn money, he produces novelistic biographies for children. Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in late October makes Kazantzakis confront anew his ambivalence concerning Greek nationalism.

1941. As the Germans overrun mainland Greece and then Crete, Kazantzakis assuages his grief with work. He finishes the drama Buddha in first draft, revises his translation of Dante, and begins a novel originally entitled “The Saint’s Life of Zorbas.”

1942. Confined to Aegina for the duration of the war, he vows to forsake his writing as soon as possible in order to re-enter politics. The Germans allow him a few days in Athens, where he meets Professor Yannis Kakridis; they agree to collaborate on a new translation of Homer’s Iliad. Kazantzakis finishes the first draft between August and October, then plans a novel on Jesus to be called “Christ’s Memoirs” – the germ of the future Last Temptation of Christ.

1943. Working energetically despite the privations of the German occupation, Kazantzakis completes the second drafts of Buddha, Alexis Zorbas, and the Iliad translation. Then he writes a new version of Aeschylus’s Prometheus trilogy.

1944. In the spring and summer he writes the plays Capodistria and Constantine Palaiologos. Together with the Prometheus trilogy, these cover ancient, Byzantine, and modern Greece. After the German withdrawal, Kazantzakis moves immediately to Athens, where he is offered hospitality by Tea Anemoyanni. He witnesses the phase of the civil war called the “Dekemvriana” (the December events).

1945. Fulfilling his vow to re-enter politics, he becomes the leader of a small socialist party whose aim is to unite all the splinter groups of the noncommunist left. He is denied admission to the Academy of Athens by two votes. The government sends him on a fact-finding mission to Crete to verify the German atrocities there. In November he marries his longtime companion Eleni Samiou and is sworn in as Minister without Portfolio in the Sofoulis coalition government.

1946. The uniting of the democratic socialist parties having occurred, Kazantzakis resigns his post as minister. On March 25, the anniversary of Greek Independence, his play Capodistria opens at the Royal Theater. The production causes an uproar, including threats by a right-wing nationalist to burn down the theater. The Society of Greek Writers recommends Kazantzakis for the Nobel Prize, together with Sikelianos. In June he begins a sojourn abroad that is meant to last only forty days but that actually lasts for the remainder of his life. In England he attempts to convince British intellectuals to join him in forming an Internationale of the Spirit: they are not interested. The British Council offers him a room in Cambridge, where he spends the summer writing a novel called The Ascent – one more precursor of Kapetan Mihalis. In September he moves to Paris as a guest of the French government. Political conditions in Greece force him to remain abroad. He arranges for Alexis Zorbas to be translated into French.

1947. Borje Knos, the Swedish intellectual and government official, translates Alexis Zorbas· Kazantzakis, after pulling many strings, is appointed to a post at UNESCO, his job being to facilitate translations of the world’s classics in order to build bridges between cultures, especially between East and West. He himself translates his play Julian the Apostate. Alexis Zorbas is published in Paris.

1948. He continues to translate his plays. In March he resigns from UNESCO in order to devote himself fully to his own writing. Julian is staged in Paris (one performance only.) Kazantzakis and Eleni move to Antibes, where he immediately composes the Sodom and Gomorrah. Alexis Zorbas is accepted by publishers in England, the United States, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia. Kazantzakis writes the first draft of Christ Recrucified in three months, then spends two more months revising it.

1949. He begins a new novel, The Fratricides, about the civil war then raging in Greece. Next come two more plays, Kouros and Christopher Columbus. His facial eczema returns; he goes to Vichy for treatment at the spa there. In December he begins Kapetan Mihalis.

1950. This novel occupies him until the end of July. In November he turns to The Last Temptation. Meanwhile, Zorbas and Christ Recrucified have been published in Sweden.

1951. He completes the first draft of The Last Temptation, then revises it after reworking; Constantine Palaiologos. Christ Recrucified is published in Norway and Germany.

1952. Success brings its own problems: Kazantzakis finds himself increasingly occupied with translators and publishers in various countries. He is also increasingly bothered by his facial ailment. He and Eleni spend the summer in Italy, where he indulges his love of Saint Francis’s Assisi. A severe infection in the eye sends him to hospital in Holland, where he studies the life of Saint Francis while recovering. His novels continue to be published in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Finland, and Germany – but not in Greece.

1953. He is hospitalized in Paris, still suffering from the eye infection (he eventually loses his right eye). Examinations reveal a lymphatic disorder that has presumably caused his facial symptoms throughout the years. Back in Antibes, he spends a month with Professor Kakridis perfecting their translation of the Iliad. He writes the novel Saint Francis. In Greece, the Orthodox Church seeks to prosecute Kazantzakis for sacrilege owing to several pages of Kapetan Mihalis and the whole of The Last Temptation, even though the latter still has not been published in Greek. Zorba the Greek is published in New York.

1954. The Pope places The Last Temptation on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. Kazantzakis telegraphs the Vatican a phrase from the Christian apologist Tertullian: “Ad tuum, Domine, tribunal appello” (I lodge my appeal at your tribunal, Lord). He says the same to the Orthodox hierarchy in Athens, adding: “You gave me your 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 am.” In the summer Kazantzakis begins a daily collaboration with Kimon Friar, who is translating the Odyssey into English. In December he attends the premiere of Sodom and Gomorrah in Mannheim, Germany, after which he enters hospital at Freiburg im Breisgau for treatment. His disease is diagnosed as being lymphatic leukemia. The young publisher Yannis Goudelis undertakes to bring out Kazantzakis’ collected works in Athens.

1955. Kazantzakis and Eleni spend a month in a rest home in Lugano, Switzerland. There, Kazantzakis begins his spiritual autobiography, Report to Greco. In August they visit Albert Schweitzer in Gunsbach. Back in Antibes, Kazantzakis is consulted by Jules Dassin regarding the scenario for a movie of Christ Recrucified. The Kazantzakis-Kakridis translation of the Iliad comes out in Greece, paid for by the translators because no publisher will accept it. A second, revised edition of the Odyssey is prepared in Athens under the supervision of Emmanuel Kasdaglis, who also edits the first volume of Kazantzakis’ collected plays. The Last Temptation finally appears in Greece, after a “royal personage” intervenes with the government on Kazantzakis’ behalf.

1956. In June, Kazantzakis receives the Peace Prize in Vienna. He continues to collaborate with Kimon Friar. He loses the Nobel Prize at the last moment to Juan Ramon Jimenez. Dassin completes the film of Christ Recrucified, calling it Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die). The Collected Works procceed; they now include two more volumes of plays, several volumes of travel articles, Toda-Raba translated from French into Greek, and Saint Francis.

1957. Kazantzakis continues to work with Kimon Friar. A long interview with Pierre Sipriot is broadcast in six installments over Paris radio. Kazantzakis attends the showing of Celui qui doit mourir at the Cannes film festival. The Parisian publisher Plon agrees to bring out his Collected Works in French translation. Kazantzakis and Eleni depart for China as the guests of the Chinese government. Because his return flight is via Japan, he is forced to be vaccinated in Canton. Over the North Pole the vaccination swells and his arm begins to turn gangrenous. He is taken for treatment at the hospital in Freiburg im Breisgau where his leukemia was originally diagnosed. The crisis passes. Albert Schweitzer comes to congratulate him, but then an epidemic of Asiatic flu quickly overcomes him in his weakened condition. He dies on 26 October, aged 74 years. His body arrives in Athens. The Greek Orthodox Church refuses to allow it to lie in state. The body is transferred to Crete, where it is viewed in the cathedral church of Iraklion. A huge procession follows it to interment on the Venetian ramparts. Later, Kazantzakis’ chosen epitaph is inscribed on the tomb: “Den elpizo tipota. Den fovumai tipota. Eimai eleftheros.” (I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.)

* This chronology is based largely on the biographical summaries that Pandelis Prevelakis includes in the Tetrakosia grammata tu Kazantzaki ston Prevelaki (Editions Elenis N. Kazantzaki, Athens 1965).

** The date is given as Old Style/New Style. This is because Greek dates prior to 16th February 1923 reflect the Julian Calendar. The Gregorian reform of the Julian Calendar, although accepted in most of southern Europe during the sixteenth century and by Britain and the United States in 1752, was delayed in Greece until 1923, when 16th February became 1st March. To convert Old Style (O.S.) to New Style (N.S.), add twelve days if the O.S. date falls in the nineteenth century and thirteen days if the O.S. date falls in the twentieth century.



1927 Askitiki (or Salvatores Dei) A concise philosophical text, in which Kazantzakis expresses his metaphysical beliefs.
1927 – 1941 Travels Several volumes of the author’s reflections on travels in Spain, Italy, Sinai, Japan, England, Russia, Jerusalem and Cyprus.
1929 – 1938 Odyssey An ambitious work divided into twenty-four “Rhapsodies” comprising a total of 33 333 lines of iambic decapentasyllable verse.
1938 – 1948 A series of plays on themes from ancient and modern history: Prometheus, Capodistrias, Kouros (or Theseus), Nikiforos Fokas, Constantine Palaeologos, Christopher Columbus, Sodom and Gomorrah, Buddha, Melissa.
1946 – 1957 Kazantzakis turns to writing novels, in an effort to communicate with the wider public.
  Zorba the Greek (1946)
Christ Recrucified (1948)
Freedom and Death (1950)
The Last Temptation (1951)
God’s Pauper (1953)
Report to Greco
(published posthumously in 1961)


1954 The Divine Comedy (Dante).




One response to “Biography of Nikos Kazantzakis

  1. Camilo Andrés Garzón Castaño

    26/04/2014 at 08:49

    I have been researching Kazantzakis and Nietzsche, and this is the blog where I have been posting my journals, check it out!


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