Heinrich Böll, Billiards at Half-Past Nine

(Penguin Books, 1994, first published in German in 1959)

DISCUSSION GUIDE

 

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

 

Robert Faehmel (architect and war veteran)

Richard Faehmel (Robert’s father, who came to Cologne in 1907 to start the family firm)

Johanna Faehmel (Robert’s mother, Richard’s wife, committed to a lunatic asylum)

Heinrich Faehmel (the first son born to Richard & Johanna, who died in 1917, saying “Hindenburg”)

Otto Faehmel (Robert’s older brother, who was corrupted by the Nazis)

Joseph Faehmel (Robert’s son, also an architect)

Marianne Schmitz (young Joseph’s girl-friend, who was nearly hanged by her own mother)

Ruth Faehmel (Robert’s daughter, Joseph’s sister)

Jochen Kuhlgamme (the old bellhop at the Prince Heinrich Hotel, ex-Catholic, ex-Communist)

Hugo (the young bellhop, “God’s little lamb,” eventually adopted by Robert Faehmel)

Nettlinger (former Hitler Youth leader and Nazi police official, current big-shot)

“Old Wobbly” = Vacano (former gym teacher and Nazi police official, current unrepentant Nationalist)

Schrella (working-class hero, whose sister Edith married Robert Faehmel)

Lieutenant Schrit (Robert’s former war comrade and current business partner)

 

SYNOPSIS OF CHAPTERS:

           

            #1. IN ROBERT FAEHMEL’S OFFICE: We get the secretary’s view of her boss and of his more human and approachable father, Richard.

 

            #2. PRINCE HEINRICH HOTEL: The old bellhop Jochen Kulhgamme gives us a capsule history of the Faehmel family.  He will allow the mysterious big-shot Nettlinger to disturb Robert’s privacy only over his dead body.  Why is he so protective?

 

            #3. THE HOTEL’S BILLIARDS ROOM: Robert Faehmel tells the young bell-hop Hugo about his youth, flight to Holland, and war service as a demolitions expert, which culminated in the senseless destruction of St. Anthony’s Abbey.  Why does Robert cling so to the ritual of playing billiards every morning?  We learn that Hugo was badly neglected by his alcoholic mother after the war, and was beaten daily at school by sadists who derided him as “God’s little lamb.”

 

            #4. RICHARD FAEHMEL reminisces about Cologne in the Wilhelmian era, his marriage to Johanna, the take-off of his career when he received the commission to build St. Anthony’s, the death of a baby daughter back in 1910, and the death of a toddler son, Heinrich, in 1917 with “Hindenburg” on his lips.  We learn that Robert had an older brother, Otto, who was corrupted by Nettlinger and Vacano.

 

            #5. OLD JOHANNA & ROBERT IN THE SANATORIUM:  Johanna analyzes the strategies through which those who partake of “the Host of the Beast” (i.e., worship Satan) seek to corrupt us, and we learn of Robert’s marriage to Schrella’s younger sister Edith and his rupture with brother Otto.  See especially p. 148 for Johanna’s devastating indictment of the menfolk of Germany.  What are the political consequences of traditional German definitions of masculinity?

 

            #6. ROBERT AND RICHARD FAEHMEL: An American army captain observes sarcastically that there were no more than five or six Nazis left in all of Germany at the end of the Second World War (p. 157).  We learn that Richard does not care who destroyed the abbey, because buildings are not really important.

 

            #7. SCHRELLA AND NETTLINGER: Nettlinger seeks to make amends.  Schrella does not doubt his sincerity but observes that his motives remain exactly the same as they had been under the Third Reich (pp. 175-76).  What does Schrella mean by this?  How do you respond when Nettlinger proclaims at the end of this chapter, “I’m a democrat.  A democrat by conviction.”

 

            #8. JOSEPH FAEHMEL AND MARIANNE: Joseph is tormented because he has learned that Dad had destroyed Granddad’s beautiful abbey.  His “little lamb” of a girl-friend reveals a far more disturbing family secret, that her own mother tried to murder her children at war’s end (a fictional echo of the collective suicide by the Goebbels family).  Joseph offers a child’s perspective on the strategy adopted by Johanna and Edith to save them from corruption.

 

            #9. SCHRELLA’S HOMECOMING: Our working-class hero visits his old neighborhood, and the example of Mrs. Fruhl demonstrates that some even in the poorest working-class neighborhoods have also partaken of the “Host of the Beast” (see pp. 215-16).  How does Böll’s conception of social divisions compare with Marx’s?  Schrella has become a schoolteacher in order to follow Christ’s command, “Feed my lambs.”  (The language echoes traditional Christian imagery of Christ as both the “Good Shepherd” and the “Lamb of God,” slain for our sins.)

 

            #10. RUTH FAEHMEL: Robert’s daughter is introduced and reflects on the insanity of her grandmother and on the devastating power of hunger to eat away at the soul.

 

            #11. JOHANNA LEAVES THE SANATORIUM: we learn that she is armed and dangerous.

 

            #12. RICHARD FAEHMEL’S BIRTHDAY PARTY: Johanna and Richard are reunited.  Why is she so frightened of the people around her?  “M” gets authorization from “K” himself to address the rally of Fighting Veterans, in which Vacano is participating, because that might help the CDU to win 80,000 votes in the next election.  [We learn later that “M” stands for cabinet Minister, so “K” presumably stands for the “Kanzler” (chancellor) or perhaps Konrad –at any rate, Böll is taking a dig at Adenauer.]  Johanna reveals to her husband her plan to shoot Vacano and then plead insanity (i.e., take her stand on Paragraph 51).  “Death will bring the great wonder back into his face; com, don’t tremble, dearest, I want to pay the ransom money.”

 

            #13. THE FAMILY IS RECONSTITUTED: What do you make of the digression into Roman archeology at the beginning of this chapter?  Hugo reads his adoption papers and acknowledges Robert as his father.  What do you make of the skepticism about party politics expressed in the dialogue between Robert and Schrella (see especially pp. 273-74)?  Johanna takes her shot, but the results are not fatal, and Richard observes that “a brittle, short noise like that can work wonders.”  So is Böll trying to provide a rationale for terrorism?