The man waited under the tree. When his time had come, he moved forward.
A sudden, strong gust of wind broke off the crown of a plane tree. It fell into the chestnut under which the man had waited.
He laid on his back, unconscious, seemingly unhurt. When the ambulancemen moved him, they realised that the back of his skull was smashed in. They brought him into the next hospital, already dead.
Paris, Champs Élysée, 1. VI. 1938, 19:30. Ödön von HORVÁTH (Ger., Eng.).
In 1956 a young German student* visits Paris trying to identify the location. He speaks with the street sweepers, but no one remembers the accident. When he walks away they come back and point him to Mr Maurice – Maurice was already there twenty years ago, he may know something.
And he does, he remembers it well, he actually saw what happened. He thinks of HORVÁTH as a poet of Czech origin, remembers the brother.
HORVÁTH is of old-European origin, he describes himself as a “typical mix of Austria-Hungary”, “with Hungarian passport and German mother tongue”.
He was born into a family of reasonable wealth, his father Ödön Joseph (1874-1950) held a position as minor diplomat of the Doppelmonarchie – he took care of the economical ties between Austria-Hungary and the Southern-German kingdoms of Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, diverse parts of Hassia and the Rhineland. The revolution of 1919 interrupted his service, the economical disturbances and ongoing inflation did harm to the family fortune, but he was reassigned into his old role in the new republic (Eng.) until retirement.
In those turbulent years after The Great War young Ödön started to write seriously, of course he went to Berlin. HORVÁTH was accepted & established when he was awarded the Kleist-Preis (Ger., Eng.) in 1931, the prestigious literary award of the Weimar Republic, of course discontinued after 1933.
HORVÁTH is a superstitious man with a fondness for macabre stories. The storm that killed him, overturned a fishing boat on the Channel with all hands drowning. The boat was beached on the second of June. As Walter MEHRING (Ger., Eng.) remembers, the last words HORVÁTH wrote in the manuscript of his new novel “Adieu Europe” were :”Ein Sturm kommt über das Meer. Er wirft eine Barke um. Übers Jahr kehrt sie vielleicht zurück, mit schwarzen Segeln und unbemannt …”
“A storm comes over the Sea. It overturns a boat. Perhaps she comes back over the year, with black sails, unmanned …”
The burial saw the gathering of the German emigration in Paris, WERFEL (Ger., Eng.), ZUCKMAYER (Ger., Eng.), ROTH (Ger., Eng.) – they all were there. A large bunch of zerzauster Vögel, as ZUCKMAYER put it, “dishevelled birds”, wearing those undefined and undefinable neckties that cover shabby collars.
While the burial goes smoothly, the infight starts when friends decide to honour the late author with a commemoration (“When they invite the Commies I do not attend !” etc.). Finally this takes place on the 13th of June, Josef ROTH leads through the evening. Nobody realises that the large glass of water, from what he now and then takes a big gulp, contains pure Slibovitz.
I end this with the last sentence of HORVÁTHs last finished novel, A Child of Our Time : “Bedenk es doch, er wußt sich nicht anders zu helfen, er war eben ein Kind unserer Zeit.”
“Mind, he did not know better, he was a child of our time.”
* The young man’s name is Traugott KRISCHKE, whose biography of HORVÁTH I shamelessly use here : KRISCHKE, Traugott : Ödön von Horváth. Kind seiner Zeit. Berlin 1998 (Ullstein-Buch, 26525)