Saturday, 28 March 2009

23 - 'Billard um Halbzehn' by Heinrich Böll

The German department at Monash University, my (indirect) employer for the past six years, must have had a liking for Herr Böll as his works seem to make up a disproportionate part of the foreign language selection at the second-hand bookshop. Of course, that means that the students weren't so keen on him... Whatever the opinions, the fact is that there were several books available for me to buy, and after reading (and liking) 'Ansichten eines Clowns' (see previous post), I thought I'd risk another $8 on 'Billard um Halbzehn' (Billiards at half-past nine; Germans do time strangely).

The story takes place over one day in September, 1958, on David Fähmel's eightieth birthday. We are told the story through the eyes of several of his family members and friends, and we are thrown backwards and forwards in time from 1907, when Fähmel senior arrived in the big city to make his mark as an architect, through both World Wars and into the society of post-war Germany. The narrative is held together by the central thread of the time bringing the tale towards its conclusion on the evening of the birthday, where the family comes together in slightly unexpected circumstances. So, money well spent?

Well, yes, but I had a harder time with this book than the last one. On top of the usual issues of reading in a second language (and you should try that when you've got the flu; like solving a Rubik's cube in a very dark room while wearing really effective sunglasses), the structure of the book was a little unbalanced for my liking. The book runs over 240 pages, divided into 14 chapters; however, the core chapter, describing David's arrival in Cologne and his success in being awarded the contract to build the abbey of Sankt-Anton, is spread over almost fifty of them. Half-way through this part of the book, I was very tempted to skip on to the next chapter (especially as the outcome was already known).

The spreading out of the narrative point of view to include most of the main characters was another dificulty I found with the text. At times, it was difficult to follow the writing and determine who was meant, especially as Böll often deliberately introduces new information at the start of a section, which only makes sense a few pages later. I also thought that some of the sections were a little weak; Joseph, David Fähmel's grandson, gets his turn late in the book and doesn't really add a lot to the story whereas more could have been said about his father, Robert.

However, on the whole, the same qualities which led me to enjoy 'Ansichten eines Clowns' shone through in this work too. The device of using a single day to describe the culmination of events going back decades and having the characters paint in the details of these events, selectively at first, keeps the reader thinking and guessing, and while the multiple viewpoints, as discussed above, don't always work, the ability to show several sides of the same situation enhances the reality of what is portrayed.

Another common stylistic device is the way the characters, especially the main character of each chapter, speak and think. Often, the scenes are more of a monologue than a dialogue; events are described in great detail without the need for a response or signs of interest from the listener. It's also common for the speaker to make a short statement but then think about the same material in great detail as if the information is meant more for the reader than the other characters present. In some ways, there is a little of the stream-of-conciousness type writing of Lawrence or Woolf, but the focus here is more on description rather than feelings; the narrative is much more structured than Woolf's chaotic streams of thought.

There are multiple themes packed into this relatively short book, but the main one is the temptation to conform to society's norms (which, in a German book, has obvious, sinister undertones). The Fähmel's are one of the few who do not swallow the ideology whole (although this does not mean that they stand up against their country and ther leaders; they merely refuse to accept the unpalatable parts of the package); however, many of their contemporaries do seize hold of these ideals, and as in 'Ansichten eines Clowns', many of these are able to use their connections to succeed in the post-war period.

Böll also looks at the idea of family and what that actually means: is a family constructed by blood ties, or is there something more? Several examples are given of family members who aren't connected by blood, and we are shown at least two examples of blood relatives who reject, or are rejected by, their family. At the end of the book, David does not have the celebration he had wished for, with seven children and seven times seven grandchildren, but he is surrounded by a group of his nearest and dearest, even if some of them are not 'real' family.

I have one more novel of Böll's to read, his Nobel-Prize-winning work 'Gruppenbild mit Dame', but I think I'll leave it for a little while. Much as I enjoy his novels, I need to take a bit of a time out from forcing my brain to decipher strange foreign words; I have work to do, a toddler to help look after and a Master's degree to work at (and the footy season has just started...). Nevertheless, I will get around to reading it at some point, and next time I visit the campus bookshop, I'll have a look and see what else they have available. For now, it's time to take off the glasses, put down the cube, and go and give my daughter a big hug!