One of the most celebrated novels by Heinrich Böll (1917–85), Billiards at Half Past Nine appeared in 1959, the same year as The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and Speculations about Jacob by Uwe Johnson, two other seminal works of German literature that attempt to come to terms with Germany’s unmastered past and what this war past means for the present. Although the novel focuses on one day—September 6, 1958, the 80th birthday of the patriarch of the Fähmel family, Heinrich Fähmel—it narrates how history produces, illuminates, and transforms this single day through flashbacks, memories, and reflections.
With a wide array of stylistic devices, the story narrates the history of three generations of the Fähmel family, three generations that came of age in entirely different eras: Heinrich in the imperial (pre-Weimar Republic) era, his son Robert in the Nazi years, and Robert’s son Joseph in the postwar period. All of these Fähmels are architects, and the novel focuses on a building as a central symbol—namely, the Abbey of St. Anton, which Heinrich built, Robert demolished during the war, and Joseph is rebuilding in the 1950s. The abbey underscores the complicity of institutions, such as the church, and individuals, such as Heinrich, with the Nazis; consequently, the Fähmels’ relations to the building become the means to come to terms with the past. The novel has been criticized, including by Böll, for its reductive and overly schematic understanding of perpetrators versus victims (which it breaks down metaphorically into categories like “buffaloes” and “lambs”), but its ambitious formal approach and rigorous critique of sociopolitical institutions as well as individual behavior render it a major breakthrough in Böll’s illustrious career.
Billiards at Half Past Nine starts with monologues by Dr. Robert Fähmel, who plays billiards at the Prince Heinrich Hotel every morning at 9:30, during which time he thinks about and narrates the past to an elevator boy, Hugo. Robert’s inner monologue and solipsistic conversations with Hugo are just two of the ways that the novel delivers, in wide-ranging and fragmentary manner, the broad strokes of its narrative: There are at least 10 other narrative perspectives, including other inner and outer monologues, free indirect speech, and streams of consciousness. In this complex manner, the reader learns that Robert’s father, Heinrich, received a commission in 1907 to build the Abbey of St. Anton, a prize contract that initiated his meteoric rise both professionally and socially. Heinrich’s ambition and subsequent success, especially his obsessive focus on the future, blind him to the historical realities of the present. He understood World War I, which killed his wife Johanna’s two brothers, as a “higher” violence; only with Nazism and World War II, which claims his son Otto, first ideologically and then fatally, does he begin to understand how individuals make war and history.
Heinrich’s son Robert has more insight into the violent character of the Nazis, but after initially more public dissent, he settles into a silent mode of resistance— namely, putting his expertise to work as a demolitions expert for the army. His work includes the demolition of the very same abbey, officially to create a free fire zone but also to punish the monks of the abbey for supporting the Nazis. Heinrich’s wife actually has the most insight into the danger the Nazis have brought, but she has been committed to a mental institution since 1942 for her “insane” resistance to Hitler, including an attempt to board a deportation train full of Jews. Böll’s work implies that she, who possesses the most insight, has to be treated as insane by an insane society.
The novel divides its large ensemble of characters into metaphorical categories of varying complicity: the buffalo who believe in, oversee, and practice violence in the name of power; the lambs who remain the pacifistic, passive victims; and the all-too-often absent shepherds of those lambs. By the end of the novel, on the 80th birthday of her husband, Johanna decides to strike out against one such “buffalo” by attempting to assassinate a postwar minister who has managed to overcome an ugly Nazi past. She wants to kill him before he can kill her grandchildren, as those who have partaken of the “buffalo sacrament” have also killed her brothers and her children.
Most criticism of the novel has focused on this typology, which confirms and augments Böll’s tendency to the “mythological-theological problematic” (as he once put it). In the 1970s, Böll himself said this approach was too simplistic, that relations of power were far more complicated and that he would do it differently if he were to do it again. His main interest was in drawing a line from the nationalist elites (such as Paul von Hindenburg) who drove Germany into World War I to the Nazis and then into the postwar period, which rehabilitated many of the same political, social, and economic elites. Whatever the weaknesses of this schema, the complex and arresting style, which has drawn comparisons with William Faulkner as well as the French nouveau roman, and the message it carries about making memory a moral act continues to be positively received. Johanna’s attempted assassination does not succeed, and she seems headed back to the mental institution, but her shot rings out as an meaningful acte de la résistance, a shot not only sealing the past but starting the race anew.
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