The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1960, 496 pp
Nikos Kazantzakis always challenges me as a reader. I find it hard to get up a good reading pace because I have to reset something in my mind to connect with his style and his way of telling a story. This, his last novel and the final book on my 1960 reading list, was no exception. I finally got through it by reading 50 pages a day and then reading something lighter.
As you could surmise from the title, The Last Temptation of Christ is not in any way light reading, but it is powerful in the extreme. I have read my share of novels based on the life of Jesus over the past several years because many of them were top 10 bestsellers in the 1940s.
The Nazarene, Sholem Asch, 1940
The Robe, Lloyd C Douglas, 1942-1945 (really it stayed on the bestseller list for 4 years!)
The Big Fisherman, Lloyd C Douglas
Mary, Sholem Asch, 1949
The only one of these that was equally as powerful as Last Temptation was Sholem Asch's The Nazarene. Both Asch and Kazantzakis come at what is possibly the world's best known story from skewed viewpoints. Asch takes on the conflict between a Jew's understanding of Jesus and that of a Christian.
For Kazantzakis, his novel was the culmination of a life spent searching for meaning and of his conflict between flesh and spirit. He imbues Jesus with both, depicting his youth as a time of confusion and nightmares about who he is. Due to constant urging by his mother to marry and have children, he falls in love with his distant cousin Mary Magdalene but cannot bring himself to consummate his desire, except in dreams.
Another twist in this book is the actual identity and role of Judas Iscariot, who is portrayed as a revolutionary devoted to freeing the Jews from Roman rule. I won't give any more away except to say he is not characterized as the betrayer he appears to be in the Gospels.
Kazantzakis got himself into a world of trouble with the Church in Greece. When his book was published there in 1955 it was banned by the Church. When he died he was denied Christian burial in his own country. Judging from the ideas in the novel, he would have found that an apt conclusion to his time on earth.
There was a movie made in 1988 directed by none other than Martin Scorcese. I never saw it back then but recall my father, who struggled with doubt about his faith, being deeply moved. I will be watching it soon.
Now I am finished with Nikos Kazantzakis. Despite all my difficulties reading his books, I know that he changed me in ways I have not even yet fully realized.
(The Last Temptation of Christ is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)