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5— Time and Memory in Postwar Germany:Not Reconciled
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Böll's Billiards at Half Past Nine

Böll's novel Billiards at Half Past Nine is almost entirely constructed of memory, since it tells the story of three generations of a Cologne family from the point of view of a single day, the eightieth birthday of the respected architect Heinrich Faehmel. The events of the day culminate in a single point as well, a gunshot fired by Heinrich's wife, Johanna Faehmel. The transformation of this temporal structure into film will be the focus of a comparison of Not Reconciled with the novel, after we examine the novel's treatment of German history, fascism, memory, and resistance.

Heinrich Faehmel's reputation was established when, as the first step of his career in the city, his design for the Abbey of St. Anthony was accepted over the proposals of powerful local firms. Heinrich's son, Robert, also trained in architecture, spends his well-regulated days in nearly complete seclusion. He has an office for "architectural estimates" (statics) and plays billiards each day at half past nine, while talking to the hotel boy, Hugo. Robert has one secret from his family: As a demolition expert in the war, he quite efficiently destroyed his father's abbey to give the retreating German army the "field of fire" demanded by a deranged general. Representing the third generation, Robert's son, Joseph, is also an architectural student. Having discovered the secret that his father had destroyed the abbey, Joseph decides to abandon his studies rather than help rebuild it.

Among Robert's contemporaries, three figures are prominent. His wife, Edith, was killed by bombing in the war. Partly in response to this loss and the death of a son in World War I, Robert's mother, Johanna, had gone to the railroad yards, demanding to be sent away with the Jews. She has been in a sanatorium for sixteen years, for her own protection. Schrella and Nettlinger are both school classmates of Robert's. Schrella returns from exile on this day, only to be arrested for his implication in a prewar plot to kill the Fascist Vacano, the school gym instructor who has since become chief of police. Nettlinger, who as a schoolboy was part of Vacano's Fascist "auxiliary police," now has the authority to get Schrella out of jail. Schrella had been forced into exile because he was a "Lamb" resisting the "Buffaloes," the terms Böll uses for


the political polarization of the Weimar Republic. Böll's criticism falls most heavily on the Buffaloes, who are not Nazis as such but conservative nationalists who propped up the Nazi party after its electoral setbacks in 1932. That is why both the novel and film place so much emphasis on the patriotic militarism associated with World War I, the kaiser, and Hindenburg.[5]

In the novel's structure, Robert stands on the side of stasis, while Johanna moves the novel toward activity. Johanna's husband, Heinrich, stands between the two.[6] Robert's central role is suggested by the title, since he is the character who plays billiards every day at 9:30 A.M. The first line of the novel announces a threat to his routine in the form of the unexpected, das Unvorhergesehene , the unprecedented: "This morning, for the first time ever . . ."[7] Nettlinger's threatened intrusion into the billiard game at this moment is a present-tense action that contrasts with the frozen time of Robert's routine.

Unlike his mother's reaction to trauma, Robert's withdrawal from time has its roots in the postwar period's gradual frustration of the goal of his demolition: to erect a "monument" of rubble to the victims of fascism and war.[8] In the form of St. Severin's Cathedral (the counterpart of the Cologne cathedral), the frozen structures of the past provide the restrictive framework within which Robert Faehmel must live. But his interactions with Hugo, Schrella, and Johanna bring time back to life again.

When Nettlinger attempts to interrupt Robert's billiard game, Robert has been telling Hugo stories about his youth. This act, too, is presented by Böll as a sudden exception to the routine, introduced without transition (as it is in the film as well): "Stories? What stories, boy?"[9] Both the stories and the location of the billiard room relate to St. Severin's as a central motif. For instance, Robert equates his asking Schrella why he was persecuted, a question that would lead to their resistance activity and exile, with "saying good-bye to St. Severin's dark tower."[10] Robert also uses the church to illustrate the principle of "field of fire." First he seizes it as a handy example, an obstacle between the billiard room and the bridge that might be a military target. But Robert also hints at the fact that during the war St. Severin's was his enemy, and perhaps it still is: "And believe me, Hugo," he says, "I'd have blown St. Severin's to smithereens."[11]

Robert recalls his use of delaying tactics in rounders games (a sport resembling baseball and cricket) to protect Schrella from the malicious attacks of the Fascists. Böll's description of the memory begins "and he saw himself" to describe Robert's own habitual motion as he would hit a ball with a bat, and the verb tense does not change as the narration shifts to the historical past and the events of a certain day, Saturday, 14 July 1935. As other players in the ball game begin to shout to him, they receive identity—Vacano, Nettlinger, Schrella. The time is then more precisely given—"three minutes and three seconds to the final whistle, thirteen seconds too many"—too long to prevent Nettlinger and the others from injuring Shrella.[12] But despite Robert's habit of


George Zander as Hugo and Henning Harmssen as 
Robert Faehmel in Not Reconciled . Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

using the strict forms of games to escape history, he eventually reveals that he did participate in the anti-Fascist struggle. This participation is initially described in the abstract terms of a mere gesture (as are many acts with political consequences in the gamelike configurations of the novel), such as Robert asking Schrella the question "Why?" or Edith's smile or Ferdi Progulske's voice on the telephone, asking, "Are you coming, or aren't you?"[13] After the ineffectual bombing attempt planned at the meeting Ferdi refers to here, Ferdi is executed by the Naxis and Robert and Schrella flee for their lives into exile.

Because Robert is now telling this story to the hotel boy, Hugo, the ritualized retreat from memory begins to melt into a salvaging of the lessons of the past for the present. At the end of the chapter, the knowledge of history Hugo has gained provides a basis for action in the present. Robert asks Hugo's advice about admitting Nettlinger, and Hugo says he should not do so, thus linking the experience of the two generations.

In contrast to the function of narrative between Robert and Hugo, the more conventionally "novelistic" question "Who destroyed the abbey?" does not generate the plot. The secret that the builder, destroyer, and rebuilder of the abbey are three generations of the same family is ironically shown to be irrelevant. The family's "reconciliation," to the extent it occurs at all, is not a revelation but a foregone conclusion. The three characters involved never even speak of it aloud. Instead, only the resultant possibilities of reconcilia-


tion are hinted at by the breakdown of the novel's fissureless facade. Anything can happen now that the rituals of isolation and withdrawal have broken down.[14]

The novel, therefore, has pointed the way that Heinrich and Robert would have to go to stop playing the games of respectability, but it also shows that they do not go this way. They do not make public their satisfaction that the abbey was destroyed and remain unreconciled to the incompleteness of the destruction that was to be a monument to Edith and all the others. And this task cannot be completed by Robert adopting Hugo, who reminds him of Edith's smile, or by the sudden cancellation of their daily rituals such as the old man's breakfast at Kroner's or the billiard game. These actions resolve the novel's plot, but its historical themes remain unresolved.

The neatness of the billiard game structure of the novel and the apparent reconciliation of the other characters are literally exploded by Johanna Faehmel at the novel's conclusion. Only Johanna is able to get time moving again because her withdrawal from time is literal (due to her "insanity") whereas that of the others is metaphorical. She recounts the past as a litany rather than as a narrative; for instance, she forces Robert and Heinrich to walk the "stations" of memory.[15] The past is present to her, allowing her to comment more radically on both the past and the present. Her recollection of the 1942 view of the "German future" is a strong reminder that conformity to the present implies a commitment to its view of the future. Here we see the "present" of the novel as it was projected in the wishes of 1942:

"The twenty-one-year-old Sgt. Morgner has become the thirty-six-year-old Farmer Morgner. He stands on the bank of the Volga. Work done, he smokes a well-earned pipe, one of his blond children in his arms, lost in contemplation of his wife milking the last cow. German milk on the banks of the Volga. . . ." You don't want to hear any more: Good, then leave me alone with the future. I don't want to know how it is in the present. Aren't they standing on the banks of the Volga?[16]

It is through the character of Johanna that the withdrawal from time ceases to be a private game and achieves a public, historical dimension. Johanna's return into the flow of time is also the most literal. In the sanatorium, there is no past, present, or future: "hier ist immer heute " (Time is always today ). "Here we don't think of time as an indefinite continuous concept but rather as separate units which must not be related and become history."[17] This might sum up the major trust of the novel: time should become history.

Johanna's departure from the realm of arrested time is a graphically physical one. The novel actually describes how time begins to move forward for her again. She calls the number for the time of day on the telephone and listens to the times change until she hears "a harsh gong stoke." "Time flows into


her face" as she departs from the "eternal today."[18] Johanna is also characterized in the novel by her laughter, and it is this Nietzschean laugh that she also brings back into the world from the sanatorium: "Still, my laughter may be small but powerful energies are hidden in it, more than in Robert's dynamite."[19]

As we shall see in the discussion of the film, Johanna gets time moving again by journeying to get a pistol and firing it at a politician pandering to the ex-Nazis for votes. Johanna's gunshot unites the members of the family on their way to Heinrich's birthday party as each of them (except Hugo) reacts to the sound. Each thread of the narrative stops for this moment, as if it were the point where they all intersect. As an event that is present to all of them, it unites them, becomes a part of their history, and signals the beginning of their physical motion toward each other. The sound of the shot is described in similar terms all three times it is heard: Unlike the gong striking the hour, it is a "short, brittle sound, not especially loud." But significantly, it is still new, unusual, and noticeable, something very foreign. Yet after identifying the sound as a shot, Robert merely says, "I believe we ought to go upstairs now."[20]

The act that gets time going again for the Faehmel family is also the only clearly political act in the novel. But although it is understood to be a reaction to the murderous hypocrisy of the politicans—"they'll kill you all for less than a gesture"[21] —it is unlikely to have political consequences, since it was committed by a woman assumed to be insane. But more important than its possible political effect, Johanna's gesture inscribes an arc between past and future. First she intends to shoot old Vacano as he rides in a military parade; then she considers his successor, Nettlinger; but finally she decides on the more abstract target—"respectability" and the politician of the future, whose crimes are much more subtle than those of the past. The political act, here, is to understand the connection. Hence Georg Lukács's praise: "The 'senseless' shot fired by an insane woman, with which Billiards at Half Past Nine ends, is one of the few humanly genuine ways of coming to terms with Germany's Fascist past, precisely because it encompasses what came before and after Hitler as well."[22] In this gesture, then, time ceases to be composed of unrelated units and becomes history.

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