Friday, 27 January 2017

Book Review: Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Böll
Without any doubt, the first half of the twentieth century counts among the most unstable and most violent times in European history. For survivors and Spätgeborene (“late-born”, i.e. the post-war generation) it was difficult to come to terms with the horrors of holocaust and war and to build a pluralistic and truly democratic society on the rubbles that the totalitarian Nazi regime left behind. As shows the much-acclaimed novel Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Böll, the German recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1972, in the years or even decades immediately following World War II, most Germans preferred to push the memory of the Third Reich and their role in it into the background. With survival being the first priority, it was rather natural after all to focus on the present. But to forget the lessons of the past means to give those charismatic populists who wish to turn back time a chance to rise.

Heinrich Böll was born in Cologne, Germany, in December 1917. He worked as an apprentice to a bookseller and did the compulsory Reichsarbeitsdienst, before he enrolled on German and Classical Philology at the University of Cologne and wrote first (long unpublished) literary works. In September 1939 he was drafted into the German Wehrmacht and stayed a soldier until 1945. After World War II he soon became a full-time writer publishing short stories in periodicals and his first novel The Train Was on Time (Der Zug war pünktlich: 1949). During the following two decades the prolific author produced most of his famous novels among them Adam, Where Art Thou? (Wo warst du, Adam?: 1951), The Bread of Our Early Years (Das Brot der frühen Jahre: 1955), Irish Journal (Irisches Tagebuch: 1957), Billiards at Half Past Nine (Billard um halb zehn: 1959), The Clown (Ansichten eines Clowns: 1963), and Group Portrait with Lady (Gruppenbild mit Dame: 1971). In 1972 the Swedish Academy awarded to him the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his writing which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature”. Among his most notable later works are The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum: 1974) and The Safety Net (Fürsorgliche Belagerung: 1979). Heinrich Böll died in Kreuzau-Langenbroich, Federal Republic of Germany, in July 1985.

On 6 September 1958, his father’s eightieth birthday, the architect Robert Faehmel has left his small office for architectural estimates in Cologne, Germany, after only one hour to play Billiards at Half Past Nine at the Hotel Prince Heinrich as on any other morning of the working week. When an imposing stranger drops into the office wishing to see his old “friend” Robert Faehmel on urgent business, his long-time secretary tells him where to find him forgetting that she is instructed never to let anyone other but his close family and a certain Mr. Schrella disturb him. As it turns out, the visitor is a former schoolmate of Robert Faehmel who willingly took “the sacrament of the Buffalo” from a teacher and helped policing his surroundings, i.e. persecuting the followers of “the Lamb” among them a classmate called Schrella, his rather naïve sister Edith and Robert Faehmel. After a rather clumsy bomb attack on his Nazi teacher, Robert Faehmel had to flee from Germany, but after a while he could return safely to Cologne – and the war that had meanwhile broken out – thanks to connections of his prominent architect father. While away Edith gave birth to a boy called Joseph and Robert Faehmel didn’t hesitate to take care of the two and to marry Edith. However, Robert Faehmel was soon drafted into the army as a demolition expert because as an architect he had the necessary knowledge. When he was ordered to blow up the Abbey of St. Anthony, which was his father’s first big commission as an architect in Cologne, it was his revenge on the Church for collaborating with “the Buffalo” and for all the innocent victims including his wife Edith killed in an air raid. After the war Robert Faehmel took to a quiet life of routine raising his children Joseph and Ruth.

Thanks to changing first-person, occasionally third-person narrators (perspectives) as well as to their countless flashbacks and reminiscences of the past, Billiards at Half Past Nine allows a fragmented, though comprehensive view at the ways of life and thinking of the members of the Faehmels between 1900 and 1958. Nonetheless, the novel is more than just the story of a family of German architects in turbulent times that it may seem superficially. In fact, it’s a novel full of symbolism. Father, son and grandson, for instance, each stand for an entire generation of Germans, namely for the “builders” of the fin-de-siècle, for the “destroyers” of World War II and for the “rebuilders” of the post-war who decide to go their own – new – ways when they become aware of the abominations for which their fathers were responsible. More obvious are the symbols of “the Lamb” and “the Buffalo” that clearly represent the (passive or active) opponents of Nazi ideology who became victims and the (convinced or opportunistic) followers of the diabolic Hitler regime who were committers. The main culprit is “the Big Buffalo”, namely Paul von Hindenburg, who out of political calculation made Adolf Hitler German Reichskanzler in 1933 and thus laid the foundations for what was to come.

All things considered, Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Böll is a gorgeous piece of literature that not only evokes the atmosphere of the first half of the twentieth century and more by the example of a German family, but also critically examines post-war society and its – dangerous – reluctance to deal with its still recent history. Complex and thought-provoking as the story is, it’s certainly not an easy read. In fact, it’s even a bit confusing at first because the author refrained from explicitly identifying the changing narrators and at the beginning of every chapter it takes a little while to find out from whose point of view the story is being told now. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book immensely – like others by this en-NOBEL-ed German author too – and can only recommend it to you with all my heart.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. In My Big Fat Reading Project, I list the Nobel prize winner of each year. When I get to that year I read at least one novel by the winner, if I have not previously read that author's work. I have added this one to my 1972 list. I am intrigued by the premise of the novel.

    1. Heinrich Böll was a great author. I read several of hiw works and loved them all, notably this one that I picked mainly because I needed a classic with a number in the title. Otherwise, I might have reviewed Group Portrait With Lady or The Clown although those would have been re-reads.


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