With its appearance in 1959, Billiards at Half-Past Nine was immediately perceived to be one of Böll’s most significant works, and this opinion has not changed over the years. While his later novels and essays are concerned with contemporary German problems, this volume is the culmination of a series of works dealing with Germany’s recent past, specifically the Nazi era.
It has been noted that this novel continues where Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1900; English translation, 1924) concluded: While Mann’s Buddenbrooks are nearing extinction at the turn of the century, Böll’s Faehmels are just beginning their dynastic ascent. Because of its scope and ambition, this novel has created much controversy. Though recognizing its obvious strengths, critics have questioned the validity of its conclusion. How can one family represent the complex course of German history over the past five decades? Is this presentation not an oversimplification of those years, an attempt to portray world history as only good and evil, and thus to categorize Germans as either “lambs” or “buffaloes”? Also, how does the Faehmels’ final, collective gesture—a political stance somewhere between resignation and companionship in isolation—offer constructive advice for social change? Still others have chided Böll for the seemingly happy ending, where the members of the family are reconciled with one another and with the past, while the young Hugo is unexpectedly elevated to the status of a Faehmel.
Heinrich Böll was one of the few contemporary German writers who consistently served as a conscience of the nation; in large part as a tribute to this moral engagement, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. He actively championed frequently unpopular political causes, simply because he considered them to be correct. Billiards at Half-Past Nine is Böll’s provocative reminder that the past cannot be ignored and that the future must be shaped by thoughtful action in the present.