Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine

It takes a time for Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine to reveal its intensity. Its rhythm is established, its shape discernible, before our subliminal seismograph detects a suggestion of its force. This, my first Boll, brings to mind Walter Pater’s incitement for art to burn with a gem-like flame. Each sentence, translated by Samuel Beckett’s friend and translator, Patrick Bowles, is chosen for its part in driving with as much intensity as can be borne without collapsing its narrative into a smouldering wreckage.

My reading is circling around Imperial and Weimar Germany, especially émigré life abroad: that brilliant generation of German intellectuals that fled the Nazi regime to make lives in Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Oslo, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Mexico, Jerusalem, and Moscow. Those exiles and their children who changed western artistic and cultural life for a generation. Boll’s protagonists in Billiards at Half-Past Nine are those that remained, with a postwar imperative of reconciliation and reconstruction.

He situates a family of three generations of architects within the discourse of an acceptance of violence and sanctioned sacrifice for political ends not as heroes but as contestants. Boll shatters the conventional, temporal flow of narrative to drive us towards a grief-stricken looking glass. As an order emerges from the rubble of conflicting desires and provocations, each protagonists’ predicament compels toward a perfect moment, which like all such moments is fleeting but decisive.

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