Billiards at Half-Past Nine
|Original title||Billard um halb zehn|
|Publisher||Kiepenheuer & Witsch|
Published in English
Billiards at Half-Past Nine (German: Billard um halb zehn) is a 1959 novel by the German author Heinrich Böll. The entirety of the narrative takes place on the day of September 6, 1958 but the story stretches back through the use of flashbacks and the retelling of memories of the characters. It focuses on the Faehmel family's history starting from the end of 19th century until the present day of 1958. It reflects the opposition Böll, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, had to the period of Nazism as well as his aversion to war in general.
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Architect Robert Faehmel's secretary, Leonore, describes Robert and the knowledge that something in her routine life is not ordinary. Robert is meticulous in everything he does. An old friend of Robert arrives at the office but Leonore sends him to the Prince Heinrich Hotel where Robert is, daily, from 9:30 to 11:00. Trouble is afoot for the entire Faehmel family, which includes three generations of architects: Heinrich Faehmel, his son Robert and Robert's son Joseph. The man who wants to see Robert is named Nettlinger, but the Hotel bellboy, Jochen, refuses to let the man disturb his patron who is in the billiard room.
Upstairs, Robert is telling Hugo about his life and we discover that Nettlinger was once a Nazi policeman. Robert and his friend Schrella, both of whom were schoolmates with Nettlinger, had opposed the Nazis, refusing to take "the Host of the Beast," a reference both to the devil and the Nazis. Schrella had disappeared after being beaten by Nettlinger and Old Wobbly, their gym teacher, also a Nazi policeman. Nettlinger and Old Wobbly had not only beaten Schrella and Robert, but had corrupted one of Robert's three siblings, Otto, who died in 1942 near Kiev. His mother, Johanna Kilb, is committed to a mental institution because she tried to save Jews from the cattle cars going to the extermination camps. It is now Heinrich's 80th birthday. Heinrich and Robert meet in a bar after visiting Johanna, sitting down and talking for the first time in many years. Meanwhile, Schrella has returned to Germany and talks with Nettlinger, who tries to make amends for his past life despite the fact that he has not really changed, and remains an opportunist. Schrella goes to visit his old home.
We meet Joseph Faehmel and his girlfriend Marianne. Joseph has just learned that Robert was the one who destroyed the beautiful Abbey his grandfather had built and this greatly upsets him. Marianne tells him the story of her own family: her father was a Nazi who committed suicide at the end of the war. Before taking his own life, he had ordered Marianne's mother to murder the children. She hanged Marianne's little brother but the arrival of some strangers prevented her from doing the same to Marianne.
Johanna, in control of her wits, leaves the sanatorium with a pistol which she intends to use on Old Wobbly for his past sins. The entire family gathers in the Prince Heinrich Hotel for the birthday party and Johanna shoots at a Secretary of State who was watching a military parade from a hotel balcony. This act was intended to signal Johanna's inadaptation in a society ruled by "The Buffalo", whose members already forgot the horrors of the world. At the conclusion, Robert adopts the bellhop Hugo. A birthday cake which is shaped like the Abbey is carried in. Heinrich slices it and hands the first piece to his son.
Synopsis of chapter 1 Leonore, secretary to Dr. Robert Fähmel, architect, narrates the first chapter, which provides background on Robert’s character and some of the family’s tragic history revealed by Robert’s father, Heinrich, who stops by to chat with Leonore. Young and conscientious, she is upset because of a call from her boss reprimanding her sternly for having given personal information to someone not authorized to receive it. Robert’s routine never varies and the office is run meticulously, “diese makellose Ordnung…diesen Chef, der makellos gekleidet and makellos hōflich war--… ihr unheimlich. Sie witterte Verachtung hinter dieser Höflichkeit, die er jedem, mit dem er zu tun hatte, zuteil werden ließ”. He shows up only for an hour each day to sign letters, while his three partners, who check each other’s work to ensure no engineering or design flaws are included, never come to the office. She works in isolation, putting stamps on letters, mailing out the two form letters as responses to clients, and when there’s nothing more to do, polishing the doorplate. But “sie liebt den Lärm und den Schmutz der Straße” (6), even thinking vaguely of resigning to work in some dingy back-alley business where she’ll encounter real life.
Across the street, the printing press thunders away producing “unermüdlich Erbauliches auf weißes Papier” and outside the butcher’s shop the freshly hung carcass of a wild boar drips blood. She had been unprepared for a visit by an impressively dressed man, “der nach Qualität geradezu stank”, and who “dringend” demanded to speak to Robert. Overwhelmed by his presence, she tells him where Robert is, and he leaves behind the strong scent of his expensive four-mark cigar. When Heinrich arrives, he sniffs this out, brings over the owner of a local cigar store, to find out the brand, and orders one, reflecting that his own grandfather had earned only four marks for a week’s work. Suddenly he’s returned to the sad memories of his past, when he had buried his sister Charlotte (1894), daughter Johanna (1909), seven-year-old son Heinrich (1917), son Otto (1942) and seen his own wife locked away as insane. Leonore likes his visits, and since her work is finished, he invites her to come across the street where he has an old office filled with family documents, outdated wills gifting property to sons who are now dead. “Niemand nahm je meine Geschenke an, alle fielen sie an mich zurück”. He politely asks her if she would like employment with him to arrange these materials, and Leonore reflects that his politeness is that inherent in an older generation while Robert’s is dryly mechanical.
Heinrich briefly mentions his father-in-law, a Kilb, whose family owned the house for three hundred years, where it had been the scene of countless sins and virtues, children, spinsters, professions, evangelical ministers. But that family died out in World War I, leaving behind only its motto that the Fähmels had taken on: “Voll ist ihre Rechte von Geschenken” (16), Now the back house is the location where Robert and his visiting son drink 200 bottles of wine inside of four months. But Heinrich warns her that even as a boy Robert didn’t like his routine to be disturbed, and “wenn’s über bestimmte Grenzen ging, kannte er keinen Pardon. Der wäre nicht vor einem Mord zurückgeschreckt. Ich hatte immer ein wenig Angst vor ihm”. Source is dtv 1974 edition of novel
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The major theme of the book is the conflict between those who received "The Host of the Beast" and their opponents, the receivers of "The Host of the Lamb". Although this separation can be seen as Nazi versus pacifists, it has a deeper meaning: the "Lamb" followers are the free-thinking, kind-hearted ones, not willing to oppress other people while the "Beast" worshippers include the aggressors, the indifferent mass, the ones who subjugate, the accomplices of Totalitarianism. The main culprit is Paul von Hindenburg, referred as "The Big Beast".
Form and structure
The majority of the story does not take place in the present, but rather we learn most of the plot through the use of flashbacks, characters remembering something from their past or relating a story from their life to another person. This complex plot structure allows the characters to be more fully explored as things do not simply happen to them, but are built upon and remembered in a certain way. Each character's story is given depth through the memories as their emotion comes through strongly as they remember events from years past. They, as well as the reader, know the significance of these events in their lives at the moment and thus can more accurately relay them.
The effect of their actions is readily seen by the reader when almost everything that happens in the novel has already happened in the characters' pasts. The connection between the different family members is also very strong because of the flashbacks and retellings. We do not simply hear about Heinrich, then Roberts and finally Joseph for instance; instead their stories are one, interwoven between each other until their story becomes the same. They are all linked to St. Anthony Abbey and to the wars and strife around them.
Point of view
The point of view of the novel is very important and the rotating first person perspective gives the story its deep insight. Fully eleven different characters provide a first person perspective in the novel and each chapter switches the point of view. The first is told by Robert's secretary, Leonore, the second by the old bellhop Jochen, the third by Robert, the fourth by Heinrich, the fifth by his wife Johanna, the sixth by Robert again, the seventh by both Schrella and Nettlinger, the eighth by Joseph Faehmel and his fiancée Marianne, the ninth by Schrella, the tenth by both Robert and his daughter Ruth, the eleventh is again told from the perspective of Johanna, the twelfth and thirteenth by nearly every different character in the story. Some of these chapters are told in first person and others by third person omniscient and specifically follow the thoughts of a certain character.
Böll's decision to have so many different narrators greatly affects the book. In the beginning, we first meet Robert through his secretary and then old Jochen; it is not until the third chapter that we come face to face with the protagonist. We meet Heinrich Faehmel in the first chapter, but only through the eyes of Leonore, the secretary. Our connection to the characters is constantly being filtered by the narrator at the time. Though this could lead to the possibility of being subjective to the point of unreliability, the many points of view instead enhance the story. In some ways, the subjective retellings could be a reflection on the world the Faehmel family lived in: of their government and the Nazis trying to brainwash their country and its people.
In the story, however, the perspectives presented offer many different views of the characters. The relationship between father and son, husband and wife, friend and schoolmate and dissenter and blind-follower is not simply discussed but, with the many different perspectives, given full access to. Through his father we see Robert, through Robert we see Schrella and through Schrella, Nettlinger. Everyone is not described simply by one narrator; we are able to see the different sides and histories of each character.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
Most of the plot takes place in the city of Cologne, a direct reflection of Böll's personal history. Not only was Böll born in Cologne, but he saw it taken over by the Nazis then bombed in its entirety by the Allies towards the end of the war. Cologne was a cultural capital of Germany and the bombing not only destroyed the entire city, but killed 20,000 civilians.
Within the city, much of the action takes place in the Prince Heinrich Hotel, where Robert plays billiards every weekday. The Hotel, and more specifically the billiards room, is a place around which Robert structures his routine. After the unsettling stupidity of the war, Robert relishes his routine, habits he needs to make his life ordered again. He doesn't even really play billiards; "for some time now he had given up playing according to the rules, trying for runs, racking up points," (p. 31). For Robert, it's not about winning or losing, it's the physics of the game, of the action and reaction and the laws of science that stay constant no matter what. "Energy of the blow imparted to the ball by cue, plus a little friction, question of degree…and behold, impulse was converted into momentary figures," (p. 31) as the balls bounce off of each other. In the billiards room, Robert is able to do everything precisely how he wants, in his ordered fashion, contrasting to the world outside the hotel where Robert had to deal with the unpredictable stupidity of war. Even when he was in the war, he reduced his demolitions to stress and give. "He's never been interested in the creative side of architecture," Joseph observes about his father. "Only in the formulas," (p. 192). Robert thus goes to the Hotel on his precise schedule to play a game of scientific certainty as he tries to escape from the memories of war and regain some sort of certainty in his life.
St. Anthony Abbey, though not a place where much of the plot takes place, is a setting that is pivotal in the Faehmel family. Heinrich Faehmel built it as a budding young architect. In fact, it was his first commission when he entered the design against better-known architects and won. Many years later, in the waning days of World War II, his son Robert demolished the Abbey. He was in the German Army under the command of a general, he called "off his rocker, and the only idea in his one-track mind was 'field of fire,' " (p. 63) the idea of destroying everything in your path. In this case, the Abbey "lay exactly between two armies, one German, the other American," (p. 63). Although Robert said that the German army needed a field of fire "like a hole in the head," he destroyed it all the same, "just three days before the war ended" (p. 63), as a punishment for the monks who supported war. Later in the novel, Robert's son Joseph is presented as an architect who helps rebuild the Abbey. After he learns that it was his father who demolished it, he abandons the reconstruction project, not willing to participate any more. Even his career in architecture is in doubt. Although initially Heinrich is greatly affected by the Abbey's destruction (he had "walked through the rubble of the Abbey…mumbling what the peasants were mumbling, what Grandmother had always muttered in the air-raid shelter, whywhywhy" (p. 201), he finally conciliates with it, regarding it like an insignificant loss as opposed to the ones that really matter, human lives. At the very end of the novel, at Heinrich's birthday party, there is a model of St. Anthony's made from cake. Joseph, and Robert's adopted son Hugo, bring the cake in and then Heinrich "cut off the spire of the Abbey first, and passed the plate to Robert," (p. 280). They have reconciled and their family history has become emblematic of Germany's history in the setting of St. Anthony Abbey.
The fictional St. Anthony Abbey is considered to refer to the actual Maria Laach Abbey, against whose monks serious accusations of collaboration with the Nazi regime were made.