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billiards at half past nine

25 july 2022

Till about ten days ago, I had never read anything by Heinrich Böll, the 1972 Nobel Laureate in Literature. As I was passing through Knoxville, Tennessee, a 1970s-vintage mass-market paperback with the unusual title Billiards at Half Past Nine (1962) caught my eye. I bought it for a dollar and a half, read it on a plane trip to Europe, and left it in a hotel closet in Meissen, in the former East Germany. Objects take strange paths across our world.

I guess I had always grouped Heinrich Böll with Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz, progressive West German postwar writers of variable quality but high ceiling, the consciences of their nation (until Grass was revealed to have a Nazi past he could never admit). In the case of Böll, I was correct enough, but of course had no actual knowledge to back up my presumption. I have now acquired a tiny bit.

Billiards at Half Past Nine is a multigenerational saga. I usually don't like multigenerational sagas. They tend to be told chronologically and thus to behave like a chain of linked shorter pieces; to me that combines drawbacks of both doorstop novels and story cycles. Billiards at Half Past Nine complicates the model, though, by liberally jumping forward and back, from before the first world war to its present moment of 1958. Importantly for me, though, all its central characters are still alive in 1958, from the 80-year-old patriarch of the Faehmel family of architects to his aspiring young grandson Joseph. The kaleidoscope of perspectives through which we see Cologne during a half-century of its history thus has a center in the postwar years. The book's plot is more unified than that of your typical saga; it "takes place" in a single day.

The title Billiards at Half Past Nine is the solution to a mystery that briefly surfaces in its opening pages. The first reflector-character we encounter is Leonore, secretary to the eminent architect Robert Faehmel. Leonore knows everything about Robert except, well, everything about Robert: she has complete knowledge of his business and almost none of him as a person. In particular, she does not know where he disappears to every morning between 9:30 and 11am, leaving instructions to be disturbed by no-one but his immediate family.

Billiards, in a hotel, is the prosaic answer. But Faehmel doesn't really play billiards; he does not compete, he does not even play solitaire-style. He simply knocks the balls around as he tells his life story to a young bellhop named Hugo. Hotel management suspects a tryst, but Faehmel is not interested in Hugo romantically; he just wants a listener, and in turn he wants to listen to any experiences of Hugo's that parallel his own.

To iron out the chronology as Böll never does: before the first war, Robert's father Heinrich comes to Cologne, a rising architect on the make, his whole future scripted for himself. Heinrich wins a contest to design a fabulous abbey; it makes his fortune and fame. He marries a daughter, Johanna, from a prominent Cologne family, and takes over their place in the city's social pecking order. Heinrich and Johanna have several children, but lose them all except Robert – either young, to sickness, or older, to Nazism and the second war. Johanna becomes a pacifist and a dissident, and is committed to an asylum for her pains.

Robert becomes a dissident too, and flees Cologne for a while. He marries Edith, the sister of his friend Schrella, also a dissident and an exile; they have two children. But Edith is killed by a bomb in the second war, and Robert's life changes course. He joins the Wehrmacht, using his architectural knowledge to become an expert at demolition. His greatest, and most profoundly absurd achievement, is to destroy his father's abbey.

Oedipal conflict, you leap to assert, but it isn't really that, at least not all that. Robert even realizes that the Americans who capture him after he destroys the abbey, in the last days of the war, will think he did it to attack his father. But he is also attacking everything: the Church, capitalism, the German war machine, his nation, his past. Nihilism becomes his keynote, as he parlays his expertise into a postwar demolition business.

Eventually, Heinrich is given the job of rebuilding the abbey, and engages Joseph, Robert's son, in the effort. Joseph is the first in the family to learn that Robert was the abbey's destroyer. Disillusion happens regularly in the Faehmel family, as if scheduled for once per generation.

Nazism, of course, haunts the middle of the chronology and the center of the novel. Böll treats the details of Nazism obliquely, preferring to capture its psychological essence rather than to deliver a realistic account. Hitler is not even named; the party is not named. Hindenburg stands in for Hitler, and the party becomes "the Host of the Beast." In the most poignant chapters, schoolyard bullying comes to represent, by metonymy, the brutality of the Nazis. This figurative approach might seem to trivialize Nazism. Though in another sense, Böll directs withering scorn on the Nazis this way. The essence of authoritarian violence is revealed, at heart, to reside in the emotional immaturity of mean, capricious children.

Böll, Heinrich. Billiards at Half Past Nine. [Billard um halb zehn, 1962.] Trans. Leila Vennewitz. NY: Bard [Avon], 1975.

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