Jeff's Reviews > Billiards at Half-Past Nine

Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Böll
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Nov 29, 09

Read in November, 2009

It has been almost a month (and seems much longer) since i finished reading this book. It has been sitting next to this keyboard ever since. I haven't discussed it with friends. I haven't been tempted to share my thoughts in any way. That's about as tepid a 4-star assessment as possible.

#1 of all #1s: completely disregard any blurbs to the effect of "The interruption of this routine by an old schoolmate and former Nazi who has become a power in German reconstruction triggers a conflict both absorbing and profound." This blurb would have you believe that's "just the beginning" and that there's a lot of "story" that follows. Completely misleading.

If possible, read the book having forgotten everything i wrote in the previous paragraph except for the part about ignoring blurbs.

Embarrassing personal revelation #1: i horribly misread Chapter 4 in which the sometimes-focused-omniscient and sometimes-1st-person narrator's perspective becomes that of papa Faehmel (aka Heinrich, aka the architect, aka the self- made man). I, however, continued to read as if in the mind of Robert, his surviving son (aka the robot, aka the destroyer, aka the ruin ed man), whose perspective held sway in Ch 3.

Embarrassing personal revelation #2: Sadly, the point-of-view in Ch 5 befuddled me even more than Ch 4's. 1st page note: "Took me forever to get that the perspective is Edith's" (Robert's wife). Bottom of 3rd page i noted, "3rd try {reading the first 3 pp} and still—NOT Edith? Robert's {perspective, still}?" Top of 4th page i wrote that maybe it's Heinrich "but i must be misreading something." On the 8th page i thought it might be Robert's mom, "in hospital (& demented)?" And finally, funniest of all, at the top of the 9th page i wrote, "Okay, no, the 'narrator' in this chapter is Johanna, Robert's wife" {emphasis mine}. I was almost halfway through the novel and i still didn't know the names, family, relationships (Johanna is Robert's mother, in the hospital, and Heinrich's wife). Combine that with failing to catch that the narrative point of view shifted from Robert in Ch 3 to his father Heinrich in Ch 4, and you get an annoying confusion about the narrator in Ch 5. (Shame on me.)

After identifying Ch 5's narrator, i finally figured out this scheisse (in which i am the scheissekopf) of changing narrators with little-to-no changes in voice.

Therefore, (a) even though it's gotta be more fun to make these realizations for yourselves, (b) because it's much less fun to feel lost than it is to feel challenged (and that's what i was—almost hopelessly lost), and (c) perhaps out of sympathy, i offer the following summary of narrators.
Ch 1: Leonore, the family architectural firm's secretary gives her view of her boss and her boss's father on the day of the boss's father's 80th birthday.
Ch 2: Strangely, told from the perspective of Jochen, an old desk clerk at the hotel where Faehmel the Younger plays billiards in strict privacy every day at the same time.
Ch 3: At last, the mysterious boss Robert Faehmel going about his secret life. Ho-fugging-hum! Sorry, folks, it's nothing scandalous or interesting. He's a regular guy except that he's a nutter for sameness and consistency.
Ch 4: Robert's father's life story. The book is "set" on his 80th birthday, so why not a little autobiography from a guy who almost literally created himself.
Ch 5: Johanna, Robert's mother, narrates from inside the sanatorium leading up to and following a visit from her son and/or husband, but not during?
Ch 6: Back to Robert.
Ch 7: Pingponging between Schrella (Robert's childhood friend finally returned from exile) and Nettlinger (the alleged "catalyst" mentioned in the blurbs that you should ignore).
Ch 8: Joseph, Robert's son, narrates—an architect in training (his father & grandfather are also architects, but of very different stripes)—as does his fiancée Marianne.
Ch 9: Schrella again.
Ch 10: Robert again + his daughter Ruth.
Ch 11: More from Johanna, this time she's "talking to" the general under whom her son served in World War II and narrating her plan for her husband's birthday party.
Ch 12 & 13: Narrative orgy.

Character & Plotishness Notes:
Robert Faehmel is Mr. Rigid. He does the same thing at the same place at the same time every day. He's a lot like his dad Heinrich, actually. They're both architects. They both served in World Wars. They both lost (figuratively and/or literally) children & spouses to/during/as a result of those wars. Allegedly "everything" is thrown off balance because a couple characters from his past show up today on his father's 80th birthday. One of them is Schrella, a friend he's been hoping to see ever since the Nazi era. The other is one of his childhood/adolescence's tormentors who turned into a full-blown Nazi scumbag. Robert's mom is in the nuthouse (embarrassing personal revelation #3: i didn't notice/remember why, but all the blurbs i've read say she either tried to save some Jews being forced onto trains or she tried to get on). Joseph isn't sure if he wants to be an architect and coincidentally (today) discovers a dark family secret—will he tell his father? his mother? his grandfather? anybody? Maybe he shouldn't go to the big birthday party for grampa tonight. Maybe nobody should. Gramma's gonna be there, though, and the rest of the family. Did i mention there also happens to be a political rally right outside the very hotel where Robert plays billiards every day on the very night that the Faehmels are having a pre-birthday party at the hotel? Imagine that!

Other randumb thoughts:
Though the novel takes place in one day, there are so many flashbacks that that assessment is overly simple. It's no Seinfeld episode, let's just put it that way.

The billiards metaphor and the Naturalism color stuff (red green white white green red green red red white white green ... ad nauseam) didn't do nothin for me neither. I'll need to read what others had to say about it and rethink.

And what's with this whole The Host of the Beast thing? It really annoyed me. In German, it's probably one really cool smooshedtogetherword, but the English phrase is clunky and annoying and its "implication" leads me to utter spontaneously "Bah! Humbug!" I finally bothered to look up the phrase and found this quote from Reading with Feeling that is ironically appropriate to my reaction. "...communion, as well as background knowledge about a contrasting phrase also provided in the text, 'the lamb of God,' will likely affect how one responds to the phrase, 'the host of the beast,' and whether one responds to it at all"! Author Susan L. Feagin goes on: "These associations link the phrase 'the host of the beast' {*sigh*} with a sense of ritual, mystery, and horror, and its repetition encourages mantralike and mystical allusions that are reinforced every time the phrase is used." For me, exasperation is not ritualistic, mysterious, or horrifying. Maybe the reader must be a staunch Roman Catholic, or anybody else who's likely to revere The Host as being The Actual Christ. As a not-Lutheran, the metaphor is a dud.

The translation. Strange. Felt very slangy, very 70s (guess it would be 60s cuz it was © 1962), especially at the beginning. Possibly limited almost exclusively to Jochen's voice as narrator/POV in Ch 2. That, too, put me off a bit. I didn't expect the language to be so time-bound. The perfect example from Jochen's chapter is "I can tell if they're out for a shack job even before they step out of the taxi." OK, maybe that's not the perfect example because it's the working-class guy's inner monologue.

I feel concerned about translations though when i come across inscrutable sentences such as, "They had had none of the bravado of peace too long diked up." WTF is that supposed to mean, "None of the bravado of peace had been diked up in them TOO LONG"?! I honestly can't parse that sentence into something intelligible without ignoring some of its words. I won't doubt the integrity of the entire translation, but doubt crept in and made itself heard occasionally from there almost to the end.

Maybe this book deserves another reading, but i doubt i ever will bother. Maybe it would touch me more upon rereading. Maybe i would finally feel the psychological damage of being a middle-aged (or older) German in the late 1940s, cuz i think that's what he's going for. The form pushed me away from it, though. Was that the point? Was he trying to shield me from his revelation? "Psst, hey buddy, i have something incredibly important in this briefcase that you might wanna see," he says as he squirts me with mace & fits me with the world's darkest blue-blocker shades.

CONCLUSION: i wasn't man enough to think myself big enough to give this book—written by a Nobel laureate!—"only" 3 stars at first. I still don't feel big enough, but i'm doing it anyway. I don't think you'll hate it, but i don't want to recommend it either.

That was my original CONCLUSION, but then i leafed through the entire book looking for all my marginal notes and was reminded how redeemed everything felt by the end. I felt connected to the characters eventually. I could begin to wonder if i'd glimpsed a hint of why Böll wrote this novel and why he wrote it this way. And now i'm torn between 3 and 4 stars, which is a crucial distinction for me, obviously. :-)

I found in the last 25-33%(?) a semblance of understanding why these folks were so crazy and how Böll's saying this craziness was caused by {*sigh*} The Host of the Beast's tainting of their entire society. I almost feel willing to say 4 stars but i just don't dig me no moralist/political fiction and i can't get past either of those aspects of this novel.

Final verdict: guilty of 3 starsworthy novelty.
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