I heard of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Saint Francis, through Cook and Herzman’s course on Francis in the “Great Courses” series. I was surprised to learn about this book. Kazantzakis is the author of The Last Temptation of Christ and is considered to be theologically heterodox. Thus, I approached the novel with a certain degree of skepticism.
I was not only pleasantly surprised by the novel but also deeply moved. (I was initially comforted, I should point out, by the fact that John Michael Talbot wrote the Foreword for the edition I read.) Kazantzakis’ portrait of Francis is profoundly respectful, admiring, and inspirational. While he obviously takes artistic liberties here and there, I was surprised by how closely the novel actually follows the events of Francis life. In fact, with proper caveats and cautions issued beforehand, this would not be a bad place for a person to start in their journey of learning about Francis. The book would obviously need to be followed by good histories of Francis’ life, but the tenor and spirit of this novel are both in harmony with Francis’ actual life.
It is a long novel, and, at times, somewhat slow. Even so, the overall impression of this reader anyway is that Kazantzakis did his homework and crafted a truly admirable work of art in this novel. Kazantzakis’ imagination does not run so wild that Francis is lost in the telling. The conversations and specific scenarios that he imagines and depicts fit nicely into what we know of Francis. Some of the theological pronouncements that Kazantzakis imagines Francis saying are eyebrow raising, and a few I personally have a hard time thinking of Francis saying, but, taken as a whole, Kazantzakis gets very close to the right theological tone as well.
Francis of Assisi lends himself well to fictional depictions. So many fascinating things happened in his life, and there are so many intriguing lacunae in his story that artists have repeatedly been tempted to imagine what he would have done and said in this or that situation. Among these efforts, Kazantzakis’ stands strong as an exemplary example.
A great read! Highly recommended.