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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Billards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Böll

Book Review
Billards at Half-Past Nine (1959)
by Heinrich Böll

   Another Nobel Prize for Literature winner (1972) that I'd never heard of before I started reading a book during the 1001 Books project.  Despite being extremely prolific, popular and politically correct (he was a life long anti-Nazi)  and well read in his native German tongue,  I think it is fair to say that his audience in the United States is limited, and perhaps non-existent outside of literary specialist audiences: teachers, students, serious fans of modern literature in major cities.

  Boll was from Cologne, a town famous for it's Catholic tourism and generally indifferent to hostile to Nazi rule.  Nazi-ism was viewed as a foreign ideology by the burghers of Koln, and Cologne also bore the brunt of a horrific allied bombing campaign during the war that leveled much of the city.  German critics dubbed his work Trümmerliteratur (the literature of the rubble).  It was literally the case that Cologne was rubble after the war, and it was a particularly tough pill to swallow for a population that would have preferred the Nazi's not come to power in the first place.

  Billards at Half-Past Nine takes place during the course of a single day, but the characters spend much of the book thinking about the past.  Each chapter is narrated by a different character, and the result is difficult to follow in the same way that many modernist novels are difficult to follow.  I found myself pulling up the Wikipedia plot summary simply to get my bearings.   All of the narrators are either members of or involved with the Faehmel family, a family of architects, Heinrich, the father, and designer of a significant local abbey, Robert the son, who destroys the abbey as part of a pointless, last ditch effort to defend the home land during the dying days of World War II, and Joseph, son of Robert, who is also an architect but only starting out in his career.

   I don't mind confusing modernist fiction, but I still am not used to the disorientation that always accompanies the first hundred or so pages of these species of novel.  Modernist technique makes novels more like work and less like leisure, and for some audiences I think that is preferred, because it makes the novel "more significant."   But it doesn't make reading very fun.

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