Book Review: Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Böll

Nobel Prize Laureate Heinrich Böll‘s novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine represents Germany for Around the World for a Good Book. The story focuses on three generations of a family of architects set on one day in 1958, but encompassing flashbacks to life during two World Wars and living under Kaiser, Fuhrer, and Democracy. The three central characters are Richard Faehmel, his son Robert Faehmel, and grandson Joseph Faehmel. All three are tied to St. Anthony Abbey which is outside of the the city of Cologne where the family lives. Richard completed the Abbey in 1908, Robert as a demolition expert destroyed the abbey under orders in the waning days of the war, and Joseph contributed to its reconstruction in 1958. Through the novel each man’s relationship to the Abbey is revealed in ways that defy expectations – Richard is indifferent to the destruction of mere buildings, Robert more complicit in the Abbey’s destruction because he believed the monks collaborated with the Nazis, and Joseph horrified to learn that his father destroyed his grandfather’s work. The novel’s title refers to Roberts attempts to make order in his life with a rigid schedule that includes shooting billiards at the local hotel each morning from 9:30-11.

Billiards at Half-Past Nine is a complex novel with narration rotating from chapter to chapter offering perspectives of different family members, work colleagues and friends of the family. The time-scale and place are also affected by frequent flashbacks and memories to different places and times. All this is woven together well to show different perspectives on people and events in the novel.

Religious overtones are strong in this novel. The imagery of the lamb, referring to meek or sacrificial characters is used often. The lamb also comes up in allusion to Biblical passages such as “Feed my lambs” and “Lamb of God.” Meanwhile, those drawn to Nazism are described as taking the “Host of the Beast” and their actions are akin to Satan worship. Interestingly enough, while there presence is felt throughout the novel, the words “Nazi” and “Hitler” never appear in the text.

This is an excellent book, probably worth puzzling through again to get a better sense of the German zeitgeist in the aftermath of World War II. There are a lot of interesting details about place and time. I enjoyed reading about German school boys playing rounders (a game similar to baseball) in the 1930’s and one character’s ride on the Cologne streetcars whose routes and schedules haven’t changed over decades of turmoil.

I found these two discussion guides useful in sorting out the characters and chapters:

Favorite Passage

“Politeness is really the most effective form of contempt,” he thought.

New York: McGraw Hill (1962)

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