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Billiards at Half-Past Nine , by Heinrich Böll

Billard um halb zehn - Heinrich Böll


Heinrich Böll with his eternal cigarette(*)



Sometimes the Swedish Academy does get things right, and one of these times was the award of the Nobel Prize in 1972 to Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), the year after he published the excellent Gruppenbild mit Dame (though probably my favorite is Ansichten eines Clowns, whence the above quote is taken). I have just re-read one of his better early novels, Billard um halbzehn (1959),(**) and am once again seduced by the many fine qualities of his prose.


Though those of my generation may roll their eyes at this truism, it could well be the case that members of more recent generations are unaware that, for completely understandable reasons, in the first decade after World War II the German people had no desire to dwell on what had occurred from 1933 to 1945. After all, they were hungry, their cities were in ruins, their country was divided in two and occupied by four foreign powers, just to mention a few things. In East Germany the Communist Party was able to blame the "other Germans" - a stance which the East German people were gratefully able to adopt - while in West Germany conservative capitalists had taken over the reins again after only a brief interruption and did not want anyone looking too closely at what they did during the war. This began to change a bit during the late 50's and early 60's after the "Economic Miracle" of the 50's had greatly improved the standard of living in the Federal Republic.


Böll was one of the first significant German authors to deal with WW2; already in 1949 he published Der Zug war pünktlich, set in 1943, in which he, among other things, displayed the inhumanity of the values of that time. But already in that early text he was no one-note-Charlie. Indeed, in another famous quote Böll said that the most important topics for him were religion and love.


So, though WW2 plays an important role in Billard um halbzehn, quite a bit more is going on in this tale of three generations of architects, the Fähmel family, leading up to the fateful 80th birthday of the eldest, Heinrich. Böll artfully eases into his story by introducing the Fähmel's through the eyes of the secretary of Fähmel #2, Robert, with humor and foreboding. Böll's third person narrator moves among the characters and follows their thoughts and, above all, their memories, jumping through time from as early as 1894 till the novel's present, 1958. The reader must piece together the story from this kaleidoscope, but Böll does not make this difficult. In fact, there is a hint of the pleasure of reading a well written detective story as the pieces slowly fall together. At the same time an ominous tension is established and increased until the final explosion.


Within this rich story of the intertwined lives of multiple generations, of joy and loss, of ambition and futility, betrayal and forgiveness, subservience and resistance, is mixed the many different ways people could and did choose to act during the period 1933-1945 and the price each had to pay for their choices. At the same time, Böll also addresses the ways in which Germans dealt with the consequences of these choices in the emerging postwar society. All the while, even when evoking the former Nazi who became an important figure in the postwar reconstruction or when Robert is being whipped with barbed wire, Böll's limpid prose flows smoothly and calmly, never psychologizing and occasionally revealing a wry humor that had me laughing aloud. The old hotel porter, Jochen, is priceless.


This is one of Böll's generous handful of outstanding books.



(*) The well-known quote by Böll means: Atheists bore me, they are always talking about God. Not actually relevant here, but I like the photo.


(**) Available in English translation under the title Billiards at Half-Past Nine.



Cologne - Heinrich Böll's hometown and the primary setting for Billard um halbzehn