|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Michael Wood on Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Böll
From "Good Germans": Billiards at Half-Past Nine
August 3rd, 2011
[The following is an excerpt from a longer essay on Böll's novels in these pages.]
In Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959), a returning exile remarks to an ex-Nazi, "Your good deeds ... are almost more terrible than your bad ones." He is referring to the protection the man offered to the exile's sister, one person he saved — for a little while. In the same novel, an architect blows up an abbey his father had built not because he hates his father or the abbey but because destruction is the only language he knows: "He had wanted to erect a monument of dust and rubble for those who had not been historical monuments and whom no one had thought to spare." But this formulation is too simple and too clear, too "programmatic" for the character himself, who reflects, "Even if he had said why, it wouldn't have been why any more." Still, his father anticipates and understands his logic: "Down with the honor of our fathers and grandfathers and our great-grandfathers." These men are "not reconciled," in a phrase Böll repeats, and that gave its name to the remarkable 1965 movie Jean-Marie Straub made from this novel. The son says, "I'm not reconciled either to myself or to the spirit of reconciliation ... I am not reconciled to a world in which a gesture or a word misunderstood can cost a life." The father says, "I can't celebrate my reconciliation to a building, even if I did build it myself." In the same tone the mother of the first of these men and the wife of the second, now institutionalized and thought to be mad, cries out in one of Böll's finest lines, "Would you want to take my political unreason away from me?" It is in such unreason that one could begin to understand why good deeds might almost be more terrible than bad ones, although the "almost" is important, a way of signaling the peculiarity of secular resurrection, the presence of the ghastly old guard in correct new guard's clothing.