Billiards at Half-Past Nine

by JDP

Böll somehow manages to take the internal discord of a single family during a single day and twist it into a metaphor about the political and moral struggles of an entire nation; the fact that the mechanics of his story are even better than its substance makes for a provocative and damning indictment of the mindset and the methods that drove Germany into two world wars.

Heinrich Böll / German / 1959 / 289 pages
Translated from the German by Patrick Bowles

It’s not every day you see a premise this good. Before the First World War, a young architect by the name of Heinrich Faehmel wins a bid to build St. Anthony’s Abbey, a huge monument to the religiously faithful and physical landmark to the German people. It’s a project so sizable, a prize so difficult for a neophyte architect to obtain that it instantly catapults Heinrich into wealth, public notoriety, and a prestigious marriage. Now fast forward to the middle of the Second World War, where Heinrich’s young son — Robert — is a demolitions expert in the Nazi Army. As American troops approach the city, the Nazi army occupies a position on a hill overlooking their advance. Just one obstacle prevents the Nazi army from having a clear shot at the advancing Americans: St. Anthony’s Abbey. Robert’s orders are executed perfectly and without remorse as he watches his father’s masterwork fall to pieces. Fast forward a second time, to the present day, some 20 years after the war is over. In an effort to rebuild their country’s cultural heritage, the German government has engaged in a number of restoration projects, one of which is the rebuilding of the abbey. Robert’s son and Heinrich’s grandson — Joseph — is one of the lead architects tasked with overseeing the reconstruction efforts. Very well aware of the pride his grandfather took in its construction (and completely unaware of the delight his father took in its destruction) he labors dutifully on this edifice of German nationalism.

It would take a fool to botch this premise and, lucky for us, Böll turns out to be much better than a fool. Imagine, he asks of us, the sweeping changes in German society that were required to pit son against father, but also to reunify the grandson with his grandfather. Think of the shifting political climate, the hopeless nationalism, the mechanization of mind that prompts the same country to such destructive actions twice in the same quarter century. Imagine the confusion, the disloyalty, the opportunism inherent in those years and in the people who lived them. And, at the end of it all, consider for a moment the crushing shame of having lost twice, of having pushed the world to such destruction only for the sake of destroying yourselves. Somehow, Böll manages to convincingly address these dynamics in the space of a 300-page novel. At times perhaps overly sparse in its treatments, the novel is nonetheless a clarion call for the power of shorter, tightly structured narratives.

This is not the only novel, however, to wax eloquently about the bizarre moral landscape of 1940s Germany. One of my other favorite novels — Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut — also explores a wholly unique moral dilemma: an American spy infiltrates the major state-run Nazi radio station and, through his falsely xenophobic and nationalistic broadcasts, sends coded messages to American military officials abroad. The book takes place while the spy is languishing in a prison cell in the Hague many years after the war is over. As perhaps the most visible figure of the Nazi propaganda machine, he is being charged with war crimes for inciting anti-Semitism and violence in the German population. The thrust of Vonnegut’s argument is fascinating: on what grounds should the man be judged? Did the martial worth of his coded communiqués outweigh the more obvious psychological damage his broadcasts wrought in Nazi supporters? There is no clear right answer.

With Böll, the dilemmas are easier to solve, but the solutions are practically tricky to implement. When Robert and his friends oppose the Nazi police, some of them are executed and others, like Robert, must flee the country. Robert’s mother, for sympathizing with the Jews and distributing to them a portion of her family’s food rations, is institutionalized in an asylum and accused of insanity. Postwar politicians who focus on politics as usual and the rebuilding of German cities seem to give off the impression that they are all too eager to erase their memories of the war. A former Nazi policeman who bails an old arch nemesis out of jail is reduced to a caricature of opportunism and inconsistency. Böll is sending clear signals. The first, more heartfelt, is: nationalism, mechanization, and militarism are bad. The second, more sarcastic, is: good luck (in this environment, you’re going to need it).

This is also not the only novel to employ the 24-hour conceit, though other authors have more strictly adhered to the timeframe. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich really is just one day in the man’s life. Other books like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway ostensibly take place during one 24-hour period, but rely more heavily on recollections and backstory to flesh out the present. In Billiards, most of the narrative itself is retrospective and very little actually takes place in the one day under examination. The day’s occasion is Heinrich’s 80th birthday and the coinciding arrival after a long exile of one of Robert’s childhood friends. We’re given a snapshot of Robert playing a morning game of billiards, a tour with Joseph through the half-completed abbey, and a lengthy subway ride from one side of the city to the other. The book culminates in the birthday celebration itself where all of the book’s characters are finally brought together for the first time. Through recollection, however, we see weddings and battles, café scenes and scenes of domestic family life, beatings and baseball games, cocktail parties and parades, and so on. In total, we become as intimately acquainted with the Faehmel family as we are with J.D. Salinger’s Glass family or Tolstoy’s Rostov family. More so than with these others authors, however, Böll uses the Faehmels metaphorically to signify the divisions inside Germany as well as the bleakness the country suffered during the two great wars.

And indeed, there is a dark underbelly to this novel. Otto, Robert’s brother, falls deeply into Nazi propaganda and forsakes his identity as a freethinking and influential Faehmel. Edith, Robert’s wife, is killed by shrapnel during an American air raid while he is away at the front. Robert’s good friend is executed by Nazi police before the outbreak of war for harboring contrary political opinions. The book’s moral compass — Robert’s mother — is confined in an asylum where, by virtue of being in the moral minority, she has been diagnosed with insanity. Left to her own loneliness, she obsessively plots assassination attempts on the lives of the now-converted Nazi policemen who lorded over the Faehmel’s neighborhood before the war, but are now regular local politicians. When Robert’s mother leaves the asylum for her husband’s 80th birthday, she sees the family’s previous Nazi torturers roaming the streets without repercussions and begins to wonder whether everyone is perhaps insane; whether the lingering social inversions of the war are too much to rationally reconcile in one’s mind.

On a paragraph-to-paragraph basis, I think Böll smacks of Woolf — so much so that those who enjoyed Billiards would almost certainly enjoy Mrs. Dalloway (another book with an interesting premise, but not quite as awesome as an intergenerational build-a-thon). Böll employs the same sort of watered-down-but-still-Joycean stream-of-consciousness tactics as Woolf, but rotates through a broader range of narrative perspectives. People, ideas, and events are rarely gotten at directly in his novel; rather, the reader is indirectly given layer after layer of characterization so that a full picture of an individual gradually unfolds over the course of the narration. Concrete events are usually written about abstractly and this occasionally becomes frustrating. Actions that seem to be critical to the narrative arch are oftentimes glossed over or only discussed briefly, which makes close reading and attention to detail requisite. But at less than 300 pages, the investment pays dividends. I would wholeheartedly suggest reading Böll to anyone, both as a great author and also as a great entry point into German literature more broadly.

Rating: 9 / 10

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