- Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit
When I reviewed the first volume of Peter Bien's Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit for the Times Higher Education Supplement in 1990, I concluded my piece in this way: "We have very few biographies of modern Greek writers and unquestionably Kazantzakis deserved one combining biographical documentation, critical insight and detailed knowledge of the political and cultural milieu. These qualities are evident in Bien's highly readable and exciting biography, which serves as a model for modern Greek scholarship, making us look forward to the more crucial second volume. When completed this 'intellectual biography' promises us a most exhaustive and comprehensive portrait of Kazantzakis." Seventeen years on I can confidently say that it was worth waiting so long for this second volume of Kazantzakis's "intellectual biography" which is double the size of the first volume and covers the most creative period of his writing career.
The value of this volume lies in the way it combines a close reading of Kazantzakis's texts, an analysis of his philosophical ideas, and an examination of his politics by placing them in the wider historical, literary and ideological context. Bien admirably handles a vast amount of material and makes pertinent references to his other beloved writers, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. After reading the second volume of Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit, a question comes to mind: what sort of writer is Kazantzakis? Relying on the material and analysis offered in this book, one could come to the following conclusions:
1) Kazantzakis is the first Greek writer who made a living from his writing. There had been other writers in the past, like Alexandros Papadiamantis, who relied on income from translations and writing stories, but Kazantzakis was the [End Page 276] first who actively not only sought paid work from newspapers, but also perfected the art of getting grants. For example, when his plan to be appointed Professor of Classical Greek at the University of Madrid did not work out, Kazantzakis succeeded in persuading the Spanish Foreign Minister to grant him 400 pesetas per month in exchange for a series of articles on Spanish cultural life that he would publish in Greece (p. 53). During his lifetime he managed to obtain a number of grants to travel or invitations to visit countries. The most important is the one he received from the British Council in 1946 to visit Britain, an event that marked the beginning of his self-exile from Greece.
2) Kazantzakis is the writer of excess and perhaps another suitable subtitle for the book would have been "The Politics of Excess." His language, his experimentation with different genres, his kravgi (outcry), or even the number of smelly armpits in his work all point to different kinds of excess (p. 18). In his Report to Greco, Kazantzakis writes that when he wanted to eat cherries, he would put them in a bucket of water in order to make them look bigger and he placed over the lintel of his home on Aegina an inscription—"everything in excess," turning topsy-turvy the famous classical motto on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi—«μηδέν άγαν» ("nothing in excess") (p. xi).
3) Kazantzakis emerges from the second volume of Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit as a writer of ambivalence which often verges on contradiction. For example, his attitude toward Greece is ambivalent and his love/hate relationship with his own country becomes clear in his Journey to the Morea (p. 34). In a letter to Pandelis Prevelakis in 1931, quoted in the book, Kazantzakis writes: "the Greeks' breath is like a death rattle. No robustness, originality, uneasiness, nobility. Fortunately we are not Greeks…" (p. 52). Two years later he wrote to his wife Eleni: "The country's on the brink of the abyss. There are two spirits that are very different; it's not that the one is good and the other bad. The one is bad and the other worse" (p. 55). Though he considered all large cities hellish, with Athens the...