Literary daybook, Feb. 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 18, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 18, Kay and Benton put a ghost to rest at Victoria Station.
-- "Unnatural Exposure" (1997)
By Patricia Cornwell

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis was born, in Heraklion, Crete. Kazantzakis was a philosopher, a doctor of laws, a politician, and a prolific writer in almost all genres. He studied under Henri Bergson, won the Lenin Peace Prize, missed the 1957 Nobel by one vote, translated Goethe and Dante, wrote a 33,333-line sequel to "The Odyssey," and traveled the world for much of his expatriate life. Notwithstanding, his most famous novel, "Zorba the Greek," is a rejection of intellectualism and a return to his birthplace -- though Zorba may be a Cretan like no other. By precept and example Zorba educates a British academic to folly, passion and the Arcadian basics: "How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea."

The lesson-giving goes both ways. When pressed to reveal what he has learned in all his books, the "Boss"says that "We are little grubs, Zorba, minute grubs on the small leaf of a tremendous tree":

"Some men -- the more intrepid ones -- reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the root of our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins ... the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: 'God'! Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: 'I like it'!"

Kazantzakis wrote "Zorba" during WWII, when he was in his 60s and Greece was under German occupation -- enduring starvation conditions so severe that he and his wife would stay in bed to conserve energy. His letters convey a similar resolve and passion; his "The Last Temptation of Christ," published just two years before his death in 1957, was written to show man "that he must not fear pain, temptation or death"; his tombstone inscription in hometown Heraklion reads, "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

These are pretty much Zorba's last words too. "Zorba" the movie ends with the famous beach-dance, but in the book Zorba moves on to further adventures. He has heard the Boss say that he has learned to be "a man with warm blood and solid bones, who lets tears run down his cheeks when he is suffering, and ... does not spoil the freshness of his joy by running it through the fine sieve of metaphysics," but Zorba is not quite convinced. His last communication is "a card from Rumania showing a very buxom woman wearing a low-necked dress":

"I'm still alive, I'm eating mamaliga and drinking vodka. I work in the oil mines and am as dirty and stinking as any sewer rat. But who cares? You can find here plenty of all your heart and belly can desire. A real paradise for old rascals like me. Do you understand, boss? A wonderful life ... plenty of sweetmeats, and sweethearts into the bargain, God be praised! All the best.

Alexis Zorbescu, sewer rat"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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