Billiards at Half Past Nine

Billiards at Half Past Nine is Heinrich Boll’s sixth novel, originally published in 1959 ten years after his first, The Train Was on Time, and available in a 1961 translation by Patrick Bowles. As with much of Boll’s work, it centres on post-war Germany’s relationship to its past, here personified in three generations of the Faehmel family, Heinrich (on whose eightieth birthday the novel is set), his son, Robert, and his grandson, Joseph. All three are architects, and one building in particular is central to the novel’s schematic, the Abbey of St Anthony, which is built by Heinrich, demolished in the war by Robert, and redesigned by Joseph.

The novel is told from a variety of viewpoints – for example, it begins from the point of view of Robert’s secretary, Leonora, who is surprised by his rudeness when she interrupts his daily game of billiards at the Hotel Prinz Heinrich between nine-thirty and eleven, the mystery of which is later touched upon by his father, Heinrich:

“What’s he up to, what does he do, my son, the only one I have left, Leonora?”

In the next chapter, we find Robert in the Prinz Albert where the staff have clear instructions he is not to be interrupted, instructions which are challenged by the arrival of Nettlinger, an acquaintance from Robert’s school days. This chapter is told from the point of view of Jochen, a desk clerk at the hotel, who recognises Robert’s goodness despite his unusual behaviour:

“He’s one of the few people for whom I’d stick my hand in the fire anytime, anytime, d’you understand, this old hand here, corrupt and crabbed with rheumatism.”

This physical representation of age gives some indication of the way in which the past is constantly invading the present for the novel’s characters, often as unwelcome as Nettlinger is in the Prinz Albert. The losses of the past are often to the forefront of their minds: when Heinrich refers to Robert as “the only one I have left” it is because his other children are dead, two in childhood, and Otto, killed in the war. Robert reflects on the loss of his friend Schrella, constantly bullied by Nettlinger and others:

“On the way home they fell on Schrella, dragged him into doorways, beat him up between dustbins and abandoned prams, pushed him down steps into dark cellars, in one of which he had lain a long while with his arm broken…”

He remembers a baseball game in 1935 where he hits the ball so well it is never found, but Schrella is tormented by the other team’s players with the connivance of Nettlinger – it perhaps sticks in Robert’s mind because he knows Nettlinger is desperate to win but still places bullying Schrella above that. Nettlinger, of course, is already part of the Nazi movement – and still an important man after the war, an injustice that torments Boll in so many of his novels. Schrella, meanwhile, has to leave Germany and live in exile. He returns towards the end of the novel, welcomed by Nettlinger – for him it is better if the past is forgotten.

Boll divides his cast using an unusual, quasi-religious symbolism. Schrella describes himself as a ‘lamb’ and tells Robert, “…we’ve sworn never to taste of the Buffalo Sacrament.” This is a little disconcerting at first as it seems to be entirely of Boll’s invention. In the course of the novel, the Buffalo Sacrament is associated with Hindenburg and German imperialism, as well as a Nazi marching song. ‘Lamb’ already has connotations of pacifism and sacrifice – though that one of this group, Ferdi, is executed for attempting to assassinate a leading Nazi suggests it is anti-war rather than non-violent. Robert resists in his own way, becoming a demolitions expert in the army – the very opposite of his father – intent on destroying German buildings to remove them from the line of fire. This culminates in the destruction of the Abbey which he knows is unnecessary, as do the Allies when he is captured days later as the war ends:

“Why did you blow the Abbey sky-high when it so obviously had no tactical or strategic importance whatsoever?”

It does not seem to be a question of his relationship with his father, but a protest at the capitulation of German institutions. Both Robert and Heinrich are invited to the consecration of the new Abbey, and both say they will go while knowing they will not – an illustration of the necessity of pretending the past is forgotten. Robert feels he cannot go as he is not reconciled to “the powers guilty of Ferdi’s death” and Heinrich because he is not

“…reconciled to my son Otto who was my son no longer, only my son’s husk, and I can’t celebrate my reconciliation to a building even if I did build it myself.”

Billiards at Half Past Nine is a complex novel – Boll himself apparently later thought it too schematic in its construction – but it is also very moving in places. It demonstrates the difficult choices faced when a country succumbs to dictatorship and the tensions which remain in the aftermath. Rebuilding alone, it suggests, is not enough.

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5 Responses to “Billiards at Half Past Nine”

  1. Tony Says:

    It’s a long time since I read this, and the only thing I can recall is that it wasn’t my favourite Böll book! Really should get around to rereading some of his again at some point…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve still not read anything by Boll, but your admiration for his work has definitely put him on my radar! I think I have a copy of The Train Was on Time somewhere. Would that be a good one to try?

  3. German Literature Month XII Author Index – Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume 2) Says:

    […] 1 Becker A Sea In The Radio 1 Bernhard – Yes 1 2 Böll Billiards At Half-Past Nine 1 Bogdan The Peacock 1 Bronsky Broken Glass Park 1 Dürrenmatt The Judge and His Hangman 1 Erpenbeck […]

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