Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

August 2012

 Well, here it is August (kalo meena/good month, as the Greeks always say) and I have almost forgotten my New Year resolution. Almost, but not quite, for Nikos Kazantzakis is still very much with me: in fact he never really leaves me. So I’ve been going over some notes I made far too long ago.

I don’t know if people considered Nikos handsome or not. I don’t imagine the matter came up all that often. Women generally liked him; a number loved him, and like most Greeks he appears to have had great vitality; as well, like most people of genius, he was intense to a degree bordering on the feverish. Sometimes I wonder whether he had a relaxed moment in all his life, for I deduce a great restlessness of spirit. He was photographed many times, by both admirers and enemies, I don’t doubt. He made enemies: that was inevitable. Most people do not appreciate the questing spirit; those people who lack passion do not understand it in others. And Nikos was a passionate man, a forceful personality.

 

What you notice about the photographs is his eyes. Burning eyes: there is no other word but burning to describe them. I have a number of his works in Greek, naturally, and there is always a photograph as a frontispiece to the weighty volumes, each with its brown mock-leather cover. One shows Nikos becoming old: his face is beginning to be puffy and is already sagging under the chin. But he still retains a good head of hair, and fiercely bushy eyebrows. His moustache is tinged with grey, though. And he is looking away from the camera: those eyes are just inky black sockets in this picture.

The other photo of Nikos may have been the one that his widow Eleni liked best, for she seems to have controlled the publication of his work from the time of his death almost until the time of her own.  It shows him, this picture, in his prime. The year was 1928, which makes him forty-five. The eyes are unflinching, gazing at the camera. At you: this is what the observer feels, and also feels that there is no escape. This reader does, anyway. A slight dimple in the chin, a slight pursing of the mouth Neat ears, set close beside his head. A straight nose and just two marks of a frown between the black brows.  Nikos was convinced that he had more than a drop of North African blood, and was proud of what he assumed to be a fact; it might help explain that brooding intensity. You will say I am stereotyping. Oh well, perhaps I am, but you know what I mean.

His head and his left hand: there is only black space in-between. The hand, slender and elegant, with a ring on the middle finger, is slightly splayed in a very Greek gesture of interrogation: the index finger is lowered and forms a V with the thumb, while the other three fingers are slightly raised. A sliver of white cuff borders his wrist.

The photo is one of a formidable man. I wouldn’t have wanted to cross swords with Nikos. Not ever. And yet there was a vulnerability about him. The great authority on Nikos’s life, Peter Bien, does not consider him a supreme artist, not a Dostoevsky or an Ibsen. Bien considers that Nikos’s fortitude was the admirable thing about him: his life was very discouraging, but he kept on, despite disappointments, betrayals and loss, and despite the quirks of fate in which he was all too unexpectedly involved. Friends died too soon, there were quarrels with other friends and subsequent estrangements, publishers reneged on various contracts, and manuscripts got lost in the mail. (I’ve had that experience pre-email, and it is definitely not one I would ever want to repeat.)

He travelled a great deal, and was involved in many of the great upheavals of the 20th Century, while one of his earliest memories was that of being a childish observer of a Cretan uprising against the Ottoman occupiers. He had first-hand experience of war, having been a foreign correspondent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, having lived in German-occupied Greece, and then in Athens during the disastrous civil war that followed that occupation.

Nikos considered that life was but a brief moment between the twin abysses of pre-birth and post-death. But he certainly made the most of that moment.

 

 

 

Gillian Bouras

 

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