Nikos Kazantzakis
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962
Translated from the Greek by P.A. Bien
376 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2005

I have read and commented on several other Kazantzakis works, and his novel Zorba the Greek has always been a great favorite of mine.

However, I was disappointed in his St. Francis and my remarks will be quite brief with this pointer to a much more serious set of comments I have written on Leonard Boff’s book: St. Francis: A Model of Human Liberation

There is often a difficulty with historical fiction. How much history and how much fiction do we expect? It’s a difficult mix. I came away from Kazantzakis’s book feeling that he was unfair to Francis, turning him into a very fine 20th century Existentialist character, and not presenting him as a 13th century mystic, aesthetic and saint. It is not that Kazantzakis would deny him these traits, in fact he celebrates them. It was, for me, the tone and manner of presentation that Kazantzakis presented that made his Francis too modern and too much like Zorba, too little like the St. Francis of Assisi I know.

I really can’t put my fingers very exactly on what it is that left me so cold to Kazantzakis’s vision of Francis. His Francis had all the passion, even near madness, which history passes down, but the historical Francis seems much more gentle, humble and spirit filled than the Francis I read in Kazantzakis’s pages.

Kazantzakis emphasizes the radical individualism, hints strongly at a near madness in his abandon. I read of Francis not from the stance of a man of faith, but from an aesthetic stance. Perhaps this is a failure on my part as reader. I believe the historical Francis is not like me, that he is a man driven by faith, not madness, though I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference when it comes to saints like Francis.

Kazantzakis presents us with a man who is his passion. Yet the historical Francis seems so much more.

Actually I’m rather puzzled by my own disappointment with Kazantzakis’s Francis. I don’t expect historical fiction to be history and I don’t expect a novelist to be accurate to his subject. Perhaps its just that Francis of Assisi is a fascinating historical person to me, a model I’ve always looked up to. His case touches me like others wouldn’t; I’m even surprised at my own response.

In any case, I read the book through with great care. My lingering sense of disappointment drove me back to Leonardo Boff’s book, St. Francis: A Model of Human Liberation. I had read the book more than 20 years ago and fussed a great deal then with Boff’s “getting Francis wrong” and turning him into a Liberation Theologian.

I went back to the Boff book and wrote a very extensive set of comments on that book as well. But, it is less to do with Francis than Boff’s theology of liberation.

Between the two books it was a huge amount of time, work and thought, but I guess now at the end of this endeavor, I think it was worth the reading of both books and the time to write and reflect.

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say of the Kazantzakis novel is that if it hadn’t upset me so I probably wouldn’t have returned to Boff and thus would have lost a worthwhile stimulus to that task.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett