A week ago I knew next to nothing of the Austro-Hungarian-born playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth, but came across him in my researches for a book about Philistinism. I say 'next to nothing' because I was at least aware in a pub quiz way that he was the author of Ein Kind unserer Zeit which, as A Child of Our Time, was the basis for Michael Tippett's wartime oratorio.
He wrote only in German and I'm currently enjoying a recent English translation of his 1930 comic novel Der ewige Spießer (The Eternal Philistine) which is very funny - if you're looking for an Austro-Hungarian Evelyn Waugh he's your man. Keen to learn more about his life and work I did the lazy thing and Googled his name and found that it's his peculiar death as much as his literary career that attracts interest.
In June 1938, living in Paris following the Austrian Anschluss, he ran for shelter under a tree during a violent thunderstorm. This was on the Champs-Élysées, opposite the Théâtre Marigny. The tree was struck by lightning and von Horváth killed instantly by a falling branch.
A few days earlier he had reportedly said to a friend: "I am not so afraid of the Nazis … There are worse things one can be afraid of, namely things one is afraid of without knowing why. For instance, I am afraid of streets. Roads can be hostile to one, can destroy one. Streets scare me."
As unusual literary deaths go that's hard to beat but the American novelist and short story writer Sherwood Anderson comes close by dying of peritonitis on March 8th 1941 after accidentally swallowing a toothpick while eating a Martini olive. A kindred spirit. He and his wife were on a cruise to South America on the liner Santa Lucia at the time. I might add that I always ask for two olives whenever I order a Martini cocktail, one green and the other black, in memory of the old doofus.
That's not true. I just made it up. But a cocktail along those lines named a Sherwood would be a stylish tribute.
But back to Ödön von Horváth. His very informative Wikipedia entry includes the following anecdote: He was once walking in the Bavarian Alps when he discovered the skeleton of a long dead man with his knapsack still intact. Von Horváth opened the knapsack and found a postcard reading 'Having a wonderful time'. Asked by friends what he did with it, von Horváth replied: 'I posted it'.
I've just remembered one more odd literary death - Tennessee Williams choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.