Nikos Kazantzakis Biography

(One of the Most Important Figures of Modern Greek Literature, Best Known for His Work 'Zorba the Greek')

Birthday: March 2, 1883 (Pisces)

Born In: Heraklion, Greece

Nikos Kazantzakis, a Greek philosopher and writer, lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. He is most famous for his novel, ‘Zorba the Greek’, with his worldwide fame largely tied to the novel’s interpretation as a critically and popularly acclaimed film in the 1960s. In addition to his magnus opus, Kazantzakis’ accomplishments include other novels, travel books, plays, memoirs, essays and other literary and philosophical works. Besides writing, Kazantzakis was also involved in political causes throughout much of his life. He briefly held political office, though he is primarily remembered for his contributions to the fields of literature and philosophy. His philosophical writings, though less popularly read than his novels, are considered by many Kazantzakis enthusiasts to have been the most notable of his accomplishments. For his role as a man of letters as well as his involvement in the world of philosophy and politics, he has received numerous awards and commendations. Today, numerous exhibitions, symposia and other events are regularly organized to commemorate his life and his work. A permanent museum on the island of Crete is entirely dedicated to Kazantzakis and features his desk, library and some of his manuscripts, as well as various personal effects.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 74


Spouse/Ex-: Eleni Samiou (m. 1945), Galatea Alexiou (1911–1926; divorced)

father: Michael Kazantzakis

mother: Maria Kazantzakis

Born Country: Greece

Quotes By Nikos Kazantzakis Novelists

Died on: October 26, 1957

place of death: Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Cause of Death: Leukemia

More Facts

education: University Of Athens, University Of Paris

Childhood & Early Life
Nikos Kazantzakis was born on 18 February 1883, Heraklion, Crete, to Michael Kazantzakis, a farmer and animal feed dealer, and Maria Kazantzakis. He was the first-born of four children. His other siblings were Anastasia, Eleni and Yiorgos; Yiorgos died in infancy.
In 1902, Kazantzakis left Crete to study law at the University of Athens, a degree which he would complete in four years.
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In 1906, Kazantzakis published his first book, ‘Ophis kai krino’, and had his first play, ‘Xemeronei’, staged.
In 1907, having completed his law degree, Kazantzakis moved to Paris to study philosophy, finding great inspiration in the work of Henri Bergson.
In 1909, Kazantzakis completed his philosophy degree with a dissertation on Nietzsche titled, ‘Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of Right and the State.’ Upon completing his degree, he returned to Greece.
Beginning in 1910 and continuing into the 1930s, Kazantzakis traveled extensively, spending time in China, Japan, Russia, England and Spain. During this period and later in life, he would also spend significant time in Cypus, Egypt, Mount Sinai, Czechoslovakia, Berlin and Nice, France.
In 1919, Kazantzakis was appointed as the director general of the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare, a post he held for only one year before resigning. During his service, he helped feed and rescue over 150,000 Greek-born war victims.
Between 1925 and 1938, Kazantzakis worked on an epic poem, ‘Odyssey: A Modern Sequel’, based on Ulysses’s story and beginning where the original story ends. Over this period, he rewrote the work seven times.
From 1941 to 1943, Kazantzakis worked on the novel ‘Zorba the Greek’, the story of a young Greek intellectual who meets a mysterious man called Alexis Zorba. The novel would eventually be turned into a blockbuster film as well as a Broadway musical.
In 1945, Kazantzakis led a small leftist (though not communist) party in Greece and represented the party in the capacity of a Minister without Portfolio.
In 1946, The Society of Greek Writers nominated Kazantzakis for the Nobel Prize for Literature, along with Angelos Sikelianos. Kazantzakis lost to Albert Camus by one vote, a defeat which Camus himself described as unfair, claiming that Kazantzakis deserved the honor instead.
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Major Works
In 1927, Kazantzakis completed ‘Askitki’, which today is widely considered to have been his greatest work of philosophy, drawing on elements from Bergson, Marx and Nietzsche, as well as Christianity and Buddhism.
In 1938, the epic poem ‘Odisseas’ was published, though its English-language translation, ‘The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel’, was not published until twenty years later, following Kazantzakis’ death.
In 1946, Kazantzakis published ‘Zorba the Greek’, though it was not translated into English until six years later. The novel would eventually be adapted as a film, a ballet and a musical, all after Kazantzakis’ death.
Awards & Achievements
In 1946, Kazantzakis was recommended for the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Society of Greek Writers and nearly won the award, but for one vote. Albert Camus, the award recipient, expressed the opinion that Kazantzakis deserved to have won.
In 1956, Kazantzakis received the International Peace Award, an honor which was bestowed on him in Vienna, Austria.
In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of Kazantzakis’ death, a commemorative 10 Euro collectors’ coin was minted with his image on one face. On the other face of the coin is the Emblem of Greece.
Personal Life & Legacy
Nikos Kazantzakis married Galatea Alexiou in 1911. The couple stayed together for 15 years before they ultimately divorced.
In 1945, Kazantzakis remarried, this time to Eleni Samiou, a young Athenian woman with whom Kazantzakis had had a long-running affair and with whom he had traveled extensively during his prior marriage. Eleni Kazantzakis would later help her husband to painstakingly rewrite and edit manuscripts. After his death, she would write his biography.
He died on 26 October 1957, in Freiburg, Germany, due to leukemia. His body was taken to Iraklion for burial within the city wall of Heraklion, close to the Chania Gate.
The Society of Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis was established following his death to continue exploring the ideas forwarded through his works. It features members in more than 13 countries.
The international airport of Heraklion, Kazantzakis’ birthplace, has been renamed in Kazantzakis’ memory as Nikos Kazantzakis Airport.
In addition to Greek, Kazantzakis spoke French and Italian, which he learned in order to familiarize himself with a broader swathe of Western culture.

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