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Kazantzakis: The Ascent
Oh. New Kazantzakis novel out, “The Ascent”; he chose not to publish it while alive. I noticed it in bookshops while in Sitia.
Just from the blurb, I recognised its heroes as minor characters retreaded in Captain Michalis: the author stand-in, Kosmas, and his Jewish wife, Naomi.
What he was trying to do in this novel was awkward and stupid. Like every intellectual in Europe, he was faced with a “now what” after WWII and the Holocaust; I’m pretty sure Naomi suicides in it. Kazantzakis was still desperate to articulate a Nietzschean answer, and went to London to interview intellectuals, so he could copy paste them into his novel as responses, with his stand-in talking to them.
Nobody in London, of course, gave him the time of day, and he shelved the project. Just as well; it sounds like it was heading towards being a Nietzschean version of The Fountainhead. All speeches and lack of narrative.
What he did with the same heroes in Captain Michalis is narratively a lot more coherent. Morally, it’s repugnant. The novel is about the 1889 Christian Cretan revolt against the Ottomans (the last one before 1897, when it was the Muslim Cretans’ turn to be massacred); it’s Kazantzakis’ recreation of the Iraklio of his childhood. And of course it is recast as a Nietzschean jihad of self-improvement through self-immolation.
So of course Kosmas, and his effete uncle the teacher, cast off their Western clothes to join the battle and certain death. Because that is to be heroic, and that’s what Nietzsche is about.
And of course chicks don’t get Nietzschean self-improvement. Especially if they’re foreign chicks, like Naomi, or the Circassian Emine. They represent all the corrupt decadence and sapping of precious bodily fluids that holds the menfolk back from their true destiny.
Of course the furious antisemitic ghosts of Kosmas’ ancestors topple her down the stairs.
I don’t hold with cancelling problematic artists for having the constraints of their time. There remains a lot of value in Kazantzakis, not least his style.
But there is some stuff that has not aged well, and that we can’t just lump as modern readers in a different culture. His treatment of women—and foreigners—falls in that category; he was a cosmopolitan Western intellectual, who kept wishing he was a peasant bigot.
He wrote a ton of love letters to a couple of Jewish girlfriends in Berlin in the 20s. All “Liebe Genossin.” And part of him felt so guilty about his race-mixing, he atoned for it by having his ancestors throw their stand-in down the stairs.
And the sad thing is, even with its blemishes, Captain Michalis still sounds like it’s 10 times the novel The Ascent would ever hope to be.
PS: As the erudite Stephen “Language Hat” Dodson pointed out to me:
It’s not just Kazantzakis — the entire modernist movement worldwide (as far as my knowledge extends) is rife with blatant misogyny and weird varieties of male triumphalism. (See Eliot Borenstein‘s Men without Women for examples from Russia in the 1920s.) Someone should figure out what that was all about and explain it for me, because (as a belated but stubborn modernist) I am troubled by it.[…] There was much less misogyny (to the extent I’m aware) in the late 19th century. It’s like once they decided to throw off the shackles of Victorian gentility (or whatever the local equivalent of “Victorian” might be), they decided women and their female weakness was the cause of everything that was wrong with literature and the world. I have no idea why, except that misogyny is like kudzu — almost impossible to eradicate.
As I responded:
Sadly I can see why they thought it, not least because I read Kazantzakis as a kid. But it is no more sophisticated than alt-right Return To Tradition, Go Make Me A Sandwich stuff.