Zissimos Lorenzatos at his home in Kifissia, in 1999. Photograph by Lia Zanni.
Zissimos Lorenzatos is considered by many to have been one of the most important and significant men of letters in Greece in the twentieth century. His family who came from the Ionian island of Cephalonia, an island he was later to visit often, emigrated to Odessa in the late nineteenth century, and afterwards moved to Athens where he was born, brought up and educated. His father, Panayis Lorenzatos, was Professor of Classical Philology at Athens University. Panayis's wife died when Zissimos, their only child, was 12 years old, and the intellectual discipline of his father’s academic background played an influential role in his life. In 1931 he entered the Law School of Athens University, but in 1933 he moved to the Philosophical School from which he graduated in 1936.
The year before his graduation he published his first literary study, on Edgar Allan Poe; in the same year his father resigned from the University in protest against the Metaxas dictatorship, and together with his son went to live in a house that he had built in Kifissia, then a country area of gardens and orchards north of Athens, the house that Zissimos Lorenzatos was subsequently to live in for most of his life. In 1938 he presented himself for military service, was de-mobbed in 1940, then re-enlisted immediately upon the Italian invasion of Greece in 1940 and went to fight on the northern front. When the front collapsed in the spring of 1941 he returned home on foot to find his father seriously ill; his father died a few months later.
After the severe years of the German occupation of Greece (1941–44) during which he kept close company with his cousin, George Katsimbalis, and the poets Nikos Egonopoulos and Nikos Gatsos, and another spell in the Greek army, Lorenzatos wrote and published his first significant literary study on the poet Dionysios Solomos, called simply Essay I. It was this publication that brought him into contact with the Greek poet George Seferis which resulted in their close friendship.
After the Greek civil war he went to Paris, then to London where he met Philip Sherrard, and in 1950 he spent the summer with Sherrard and the poet Odyseus Elytis in Menton on the Cote-d’Azur. In 1953 he returned to London to work for the Greek service of the BBC, but resigned the following year over the Cyprus issue. It was also in 1953 that he translated into Greek William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell which was published in the same year, a year which marked a reorientation of his until then dominantly humanistic approach to literature, a reorientation that was to put him at odds with his friend Seferis.
From 1955 Lorenzatos lived permanently in Greece. His personal circumstances permitted him to spend all his time reading and studying and this is reflected in the enormous breadth of the references in his work, and although mainly concerned with Greek literature, his writings also deal with such diverse figures as Dante, Pascal, Andre Gide, T. S. Eliot, E. A. Blair, Paul Valery, Ezra Pound, and the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Cornelios Kastoriadis. These writings took the form of essays, some of considerable length, and were published throughout the years as monographs; his collected essays, two thick volumes of over eleven hundred pages, appeared in 1994. He also wrote poetry and made a number of fine translations.
His reflections on and assessments of literary and cultural figures and their work were made increasingly in the light of the eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. His particular gift of discerning the dimensions of the sacred in the subjects of his studies rendered his critical talents even more remarkable, and an innate respect for the work under scrutiny can be seen in his refusal to impose his own understanding of the sacred in those studies: there is always a deep sympathy for what comes under his critical eye. As David Ricks points out in his foreword to The Drama of Quality, ‘you don't have to be Orthodox to like Lorenzatos, and to continue learning from him. His writings challenge and encourage those who are neither Orthodox nor Christian: experto credite.’
Zissimos Lorenzatos was a very private man — in all he made only five public appearances during his life and shunned recognition and honours — but he was a man of great charm and had a wide circle of friends to whom he was very attentive, and he welcomed and gave time to young people who approached him. He lived simply and frugally, preferring a plain Greek taverna with good wine from the barrel to fine restaurants, and spent a number of summers traversing the Greek seas with a sea-faring friend in a small sailing boat.
The first collection of essays by Zissimos Lorenzatos to be published in English was The Lost Center and Other Essays in Greek Poetry (translated by Kay Cicellis, Princeton University Press, 1980) and contained four essays on Dionysios Solomos, in addition to his seminal essay, ‘The Lost Center’, on George Seferis. It is no longer in print.
His Collectanea, extensive notebooks that he started to keep on the day after his father died, were published posthumously in Greece in 2009 by Domos Publications.