Albert Camus is right up to a point; we are all destined to die. But if you’re an author then the “when and how” your characters meet their end do matter.
Some opt for a quiet fading away to the last breath, others prefer the grand gesture along the lines of Madame Bovary. But the deaths of the authors themselves can be just as strange.
Here are of the most unusual – and bizarre – ways in which famous authors said farewell to this world.
Albert Camus 1913-1960
Where better to begin than with Albert Camus himself.
On January 4,1960, Camus was in a car on his way to Paris with his friend Michel Gallimard. Gallimard who was driving, suddenly lost control of the car on an icy patch and slammed into a tree. Both Camus and Gallimard were killed.
About 50 years after this event, stories began circulating that Camus was killed by Soviet spies on the direction of the Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov. They supposedly used a special kind of equipment which could make a hole in the tyre of the car at speed (sounds very James Bond to me). Why would Camus have been targeted? He had written an article three years before his death in which he attacked and criticised Shepilov.
It’s a conspiracy theory that’s never been substantiated.
Emile Zola 1840-1902
Conspiracy theorists were also in evidence in 1902 when the body of the French realist author Emile Zola was discovered at his home in Paris.
He had woken, feeling sick, at 3am on 29 September but he told his wife not to rouse their servants. When day broke she was found unconscious and he was dead.
Carbon monoxide poisoning was suspected but many people raised the possibility he’d been murdered by anti-Dreyfusards (a reaction to Zola’s involvement in the infamous Dreyfus affair.)
An inquest was ordered. Tests conducted on the fireplaces of the Paris house did not discover any blockages. The coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes but refused to make his report public.
The cause of Zola’s death is still the subject of considerable debate.
Nikolai Gogol (31 March 1809 – 4 March 1852)
Debate rages too about the death of the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol.
In 1852 he was in a state of deep depression. On the night of 24 February he burned some of his manuscripts (containing most of the second part of Dead Souls.) He claimed this was a mistake, the result of a practical joke played on him by the Devil.
He went to bed, refused all food and died in great pain nine days later. Officially he died as a result of starvation.
His grave at Danilov Monastery was marked by a large stone and topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931 when Russian authorities decided to demolish the monastery and transfer Gogol’s remains, they supposedly discovered that his body was lying face down. This became the catalyst for a theory that he had been buried alive. Sounds a bit of an odd theory to me.
Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849
For a man described as “father of detective fiction” it seems fitting that Poe’s own death should be shrouded in mystery.
On October 3, 1849 Poe was discovered in a delirious condition at a tavern in Baltimore. The doctor who was summoned described Poe as looking hagggard, unwashed and dishevelled.
Poe was taken to hospital, denied visitors and kept in a room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunks. He died a few days later.
The precise cause of Poe’s death is disputed. His first doctor (a supporter of the Temperance movement) was convinced it was the result of alcoholism. This was the line followed by newspapers at the time who reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, (both euphemisms for deaths from unhealthy causes such as alcoholism).
Poe’s second doctor disagreed and said there was “not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person”.
Theories have abounded ever since, ranging from hypoglycemia to murder and suicide. The truth is however likely to remain a mystery since no medical records including Poe’s death certificate have been discovered.
Tennessee Williams 1911-1983
The American playwright Tennessee Williams left behind his own mystery when he died on 25 February 1983.
He choked on a small bottle cap. The medical examiner identified it as the kind of cap that you’d find on eye droppers or nasal spray containers.
The real mystery is of course how the hell did Williams miss his eyes (or nose) and end up sticking the cap into his mouth? I’m wondering whether he found the cap stuck and stuck it between his teeth to unscrew it (done that loads of time myself). Then swallowed at the wrong moment. There’s a lesson there probably…
Mark Twain 1835-1910
Though Mark Twain, (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) died of natural causes, it’s the date of his death that is decidedly strange.
Twain was born on 30 November 1835; the day on which Halley’s Comet made one of its rare appearances. He apparently once joked that he would die the next time it was visible (a phenomenon that occurs only every 75-76 years).
The comet was next seen on 20 April 1910. Twain died the following day.
Charles Dickens 1812-1870
There’s no mystery about when Charles Dickens died. But there is a question mark about where the event happened.
Dickens was not in good health in the summer of 1870 though he continued with a full programme of appearances and readings. On 8 June, after working all day on Edwin Drood, he suffered a stroke. He never regained consciousness.
The following day he died, supposedly in his home at Gads Hill Place. However the biographer Claire Tomalin has suggested Dickens was actually in Peckham when he suffered the stroke. His mistress Ellen Ternan and her maids had him taken back to Gad’s Hill so the public wouldn’t discover the truth about their relationship.
Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910
The death of the man considered the greatest of all novelists, was anything but a private affair.
He’d walked out on his wife of 48 years, leaving their home secretly in the middle of the night. In his farewell letter he told her he was “leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet”.
On a train south he was taken ill and forced to stop at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village. The stationmaster give him the use of his house.
Tolstoy’s health declined but he was not to be allowed to go in solitude. When news got out of his condition and his location, hundreds of his admirers flocked to Astapovo. Hot on their heels was a Pathé News camera team and reporters from all over the world. Their regular updates were sometimes wildly inaccurate:
“Tolstoy is Better … The Count Is Very Weak, but the Doctors Say There Is No Immediate Danger,” ran one headline in the New York Times yet the man was drifting in an out of consciousness at the time.
The only person not allowed at his bedside was his wife. Not until the very end did Tolstoy’s friends allow her to enter the room.
Oscar Wilde 1854-1900
The playwright and novelist died a broken man. Penniless and disgraced by his conviction for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment, he had fled to Paris upon his release.
There he died from meningitis in a seedy apartment.
Opinions vary about the cause of his condition, His physicians reported that it was an ear infection sustained while in prison. A 1988 biography by Richard Ellmann however claimed it was connected to syphilis which Wilde himself said he had contracted from a prostitute while a student at Oxford.
Wilde’s family, through his grandson Merlin Holland, have naturally disputed this claim. Extensive research by a London neurologist and two ear surgeons appear to back up the family’s position – they found no definitive proof of syphilis.
Yukio Mishima 1925-1970
Yukio Mishima died not as a result of accident or misfortune but from a deliberate an act of political protest. It was a gruesome
Mishma, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. In 1968 his attention moved away from literature to the political arena when he created the Tatenokai, a private right-wing militia. The movement wanted to see the restoration of the Emperor of Japan.
On 25th November 1970 Yukio and four members of the Tatenokai went to the Tokyo offices of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. They barricaded the building, and tied the commandant to his chair.
Yukio Mishima went out onto the balcony with a manifesto and a list of demands and addressed the gathered soldiers below with the intention of inspiring a coup d’état to restore power to the emperor.
He was mocked and jeered. He went inside and performed seppuku (a ritual suicide) by cutting open his belly and disembowelling himself. A fewllow Tatenokai member tried to decapitate the author but failed despite several attempts.