Billiards at Half-past Nine was written in 1959 by Heinrich Böll. It reflects the opposition Böll, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, had to the period of Nazism as well as his aversion to war in general.
The novel begins with Robert Faehmel's secretary's description of Robert and the knowledge that something is out of the ordinary of her routine life. Robert is an architect who is meticulous in everything he does. An old school friend of Robert had shown up and Leonore, his secretary at the office, sent him to the Prince Heinrich Hotel where Robert always is from the hours of 9:30 to 11:00. This is to cause trouble for the entire Faehmel family, which includes three generations of architects: Heinrich Faehmel, his son Robert and Robert's son Joseph. Through the old bellhop at the Prince Heinrich, Jochen, the reader learns that it is a man named Nettlinger who wants to see Robert, but Jochen refuses to let the man into the billiards room to disturb his patron.
Upstairs, Robert is telling the young bellboy, Hugo about his life and we find out that Nettlinger used to be a Nazi policeman. Robert and his friend Schrella, both of whom were schoolmates with Nettlinger, had opposed the Nazis, refusing to take "the Host of the Beast," a reference both to the devil and the Nazis. Schrella had disappeared after being beaten by Nettlinger and their gym teacher, Old Wobbly, also a Nazi policeman.
Nettlinger and Old Wobbly, we find out, have not just beaten Schrella and Robert, but corrupted Robert's brother Otto. Heinrich Faehmel, who married Johanna Kilb, had four children, of which Robert is the only one alive, Otto dying last in 1942 at the Battle of Kiev. Johanna is now committed to a mental institution, going there after she tried to save some Jews from the cattle cars going to the extermination camps. It is now Heinrich's 80th birthday. Heinrich and Robert meet in a bar after going to visit Johanna, sitting down and talking for the first time in many years.
Meanwhile, Schrella has returned to Germany and talks with Nettlinger, who tries to make amends for his past life despite the fact that he has not really changed and remains an opportunist. Schrella goes visits his old home.
We meet Joseph Faehmel and his girlfriend Marianne. Joseph has just learned that Robert was the one who destroyed the beautiful Abbey his grandfather had built and this greatly upsets him. Marianne tells him the story of her own family: that her mother had been so brainwashed by the Nazis that she had tried to murder her children at the end of the war.
Johanna, who is still a hold of her wits as she ages, leaves the sanatorium with a pistol which she intends to use on Old Wobbly for his sins past. The entire family gathers in the Prince Heinrich Hotel for the birthday party and Johanna shoots at Old Wobbly, who is not killed. At the conclusion, Robert adopts the bellhop Hugo. A birthday cake which is shaped like the Abbey is carryed in. Heinrich slices it and hands the first piece to his son.
The majority of the story does not take place in the present, but rather we learn most of the plot through the use of flashbacks, characters remembering something from their past or relating a story from their life to another person. This complex plot structure allows the characters to be more fully explored as things do not simply happen to them, but are built upon and remembered in a certain way. Each character's story is given depth through the memories as their emotion comes through strongly as they remember events from years past. They, as well as the reader, know the significance of these events in their lives at the moment and thus can more accurately relay them.
The effect of their actions is readily seen by the reader when most everything that actually happens in the novel has actually already happened in the characters' pasts. The connections between the different family members is also very strong because of the flashbacks and retellings. We do not simply hear about Heinrich, then Roberts and finally Joseph for instance, instead their stories are one, interwoven between each other until their story becomes the same. This is important reflection of what happens in the story as they all are linked to St. Anthony Abbey and to the wars and strife around them.
The point of view of the novel is very important and the rotating first person perspective gives the story its deep insight. Fully eleven different characters provide a first person perspective in the novel and each chapter switches the point of view. The first is told by Robert's secretary, Leonore, the second by the old bellhop Jochen, the third by Robert, the fourth by Heinrich, the fifth his wife Johanna, the sixth by Robert again, the seventh by both Schrella and Nettlinger, the eighth by Joseph Faehmel and his fiancée Marianne, the ninth by Schrella, the tenth by both Robert and his daughter Ruth, the eleventh is again told from the perspective of Johanna, the twelfth and thirteenth by nearly every different character in the story. Some of these chapters are told in first person and others by third person omniscient and specifically follow the thoughts of a certain character.
Böll's decision to have so many different narrators greatly affects the book. In the beginning, we first meet Robert through his secretary and then old Jochen; it is not until the third chapter when we actually become face to face with the protagonist. We meet Heinrich Faehmel in the first chapter, but only through the eyes of Leonore, the secretary. Our connection to characters is constantly being filtered by the narrator at the time. Though this could have the possibility of being subjective to the point of unreliability, the many points of view instead enhance the story. In some ways, the subjective retellings could be a reflection on the world the Faehmel family lived in: of their government and the Nazis trying to brainwash their country and its people.
In the story, however, the perspectives presented offer many different views of the characters. The relationship between father and son, husband and wife, friend and schoolmate and dissenter and blind-follower is not simply discussed but with the many different perspectives, given full access to. Through his father we see Robert, through Robert we see Schrella and through Schrella, Nettlinger. Everyone is described by not simply one narrator, but we are able to see the different sides and histories of each character.
Within the city, much of the action takes place in the Prince Heinrich Hotel, where Robert plays billiards every weekday. The Hotel, and more specifically the billiards room, is a place around which Robert structures his routine. After the unsettling stupidity of the war, Robert relishes his routine, habits he needs to make his life ordered again. He doesn't even really play billiards; "for some time now he had given up playing according to the rules, trying for runs, racking up points," (p. 31). For Robert, it's not about winning or losing, it's the physics of the game, of the action and reaction and the laws of science that stay constant no matter what. "Energy of the blow imparted to the ball by cue, plus a little friction, question of degree…and behold, impulse was converted into momentary figures," (p. 31) as the balls bounce off of each other. In the billiards room, Robert is able to do everything precisely how he wants in, in his ordered fashion, contrasting to the world outside the hotel where Robert had to deal with the unpredictable stupidity of war. Even when he was in the war, he reduced his demolitions to stress and give. "He's never been interested in the creative side of architecture," Joseph observes about his father. "Only in the formulas," (p. 192). Robert thus goes to the Hotel on his precise schedule to play a game of scientific certainty as he tries to escape from the memories of war and regain some sort of certainty in his life.
St. Anthony Abbey, though not a place where much of the plot takes place, is a setting that is pivotal in the Faehmel family. Heinrich Faehmel built it as a budding young architect. In fact, it was his first commission when he entered the design against other much-more well-known architects and won. Many years later, in the waning days of World War II, his son Robert demolished the Abbey. He was in the German Army under the command of a general, he called "off his rocker, and the only idea in his one-track mind was 'field of fire,' " (p. 63) the idea of destroying everything in your path. In this case, the Abbey "lay exactly between two armies, one German, the other American," (p.63). Robert did not want to destroy the Abbey, he said that the German army needed a filed of fire "like a hole in the head," but he destroyed it all the same, "just three days before the war ended," (p. 63). Finally, Robert's son Joseph is helping to rebuild the Abbey and though he really does not want to be an architect, the Abbey is what ties the family together. He, like his grandfather, understands the uselessness of blowing up the Abbey. Heinrich had "walked through the rubble of the Abbey…mumbling what the peasants were mumbling, what Grandmother had always muttered in the air-raid shelter, whywhywhy," (p. 201). In the very end of the novel, at Heinrich's birthday party, there is a model of St. Anthony's made from cake. Joseph, and Robert's adopted son Hugo, bring the cake in and then Heinrich "cut off the spire of the Abbey first, and passed the plate to Robert," (p. 280). They have reconciled and their family history has become emblematic of Germany's history in the setting of St. Anthony Abbey.
The fictional St. Anthony Abbey is considered to refer to the actual Maria Laach Abbey, against whose monks serious accusations were made of collaboration with the Nazi regime.