Category: Fiction

Ulrich Peltzer
Das bessere Leben
[The Better Life]


Reality as a chain of fuck-ups
Ulrich Peltzer’s pan-dimensional novel of our times

Ulrich Peltzer is unique within contemporary German literature: a writer who can thread theoretical knowledge, the potential for social diagnosis, and skilled storytelling into a tightly woven whole. It is always exciting to read his novels as we learn about the times we are living in. On a purely technical level, his novel The Better Life can take its place alongside the great works of classic modernism such as Joyce or Döblin, the only difference being that here the figures’ awareness of their situation seems to have changed. Has the world become more complex during the past hundred years? Or have the patterns of complexity simply shifted?
Two main figures build the narrative, both in their mid-fifties, both earning their money in the global economy. If his business card is to be believed, Sylvester Lee Fleming, born in the UK, raised in the US and now at home all over the world, is involved in insurance. He is, amongst other things, but mainly he is a kind of fundraiser, one however, who first generates the situations he then assists with. The other protagonist is Jochen Brockmann who, like Ulrich Peltzer, comes from the Lower Rhine district. His field of operations is much more conventional. He is sales manager of an ailing Italian business which makes something very physical: machinery for coating textiles and metals.
A large supporting cast is grouped around both Brockmann and Fleming: friends, former companions, family, lovers and ex-wives, a constant whirlwind of voices speaking, in the heads of others and personally, from various phases of the protagonists’ lives. All this is narrated using hard cuts, with economies and ellipses. This is nothing new, but it is highly expressive and effective. In order to avoid allowing his cast to degenerate into mere types, Peltzer has given his two protagonists history, in Sylvester Lee Fleming’s case perhaps a destiny too.
Fleming witnessed and was involved in the Kent State Massacre of 4 May 1970 in which the Ohio National Guard shot four students dead during a demonstration at Kent State University against US foreign policy in Vietnam. Fleming was bound to one of the victims, Allison Krause, by shared political convictions and a tremendous love. Brockmann on the other hand, son of a doctor couple recalls the provincial left-wing, anarchist scene of his youth.
The Better Life is neither a big business novel nor a swansong for left-wing ideals. Peltzer is haunted by the question of what might make an economically stable, materially secure, cushioned life – a good life in other words – better. He has a deep distrust of ostensibly unavoidable categories such as chronology and historical causality. As Fleming lies alone in a hotel bed in Sao Paolo his thoughts drift: “Reality was a chain of fuck-ups, of inconsequential moments and spontaneous decisions which later – most people didn’t understand this – became set in stone… Became plausible connections between A and B…”
Ulrich Peltzer has perfected the stylistic technique of reported speech. The astounding thing about The Better Life is the virtuoso interchange between scenic concision and verbal soundwaves which the reader can surf for pages before being brought up abruptly again by something thoroughly concrete. Each scene is elaborated precisely, the motifs carefully interlinked, although every time the figures’ paths cross it appears wholly coincidental. Peltzer does not make judgements. He does not wish to lecture, simply to represent. He shows characters caught up in love, art, politics and the global economy. And he dramatizes the loss of conscience, without the figures’ hollowness rendering the story banal.
The Better Life has turned out to be precisely the novel it was meant to, a complex book, full of strong images, and above all ideologically open. And thus, in its radical indifference to opinion, a highly political book.
Christoph Schröder

By Christoph Schröder, 29.02.2016

​Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.

Translated by Steph Morris