he Italian word pimpante means full of life and energy, balancing just the right number of consonants and vowels to sound like its significance. Pimpante sums up Robert Walser’s mood when, as a young man, he moved from Switzerland to Berlin, then the locomotive of modernity — at least to him. Living with his brother, he immersed himself in the day-to-day, intrigued by every aspect of city life, which the tone of these vignettes evidence. Tactile verve is all around, even with mustard: “I paint my sandwiches brown before inserting them so cozily into my mouth…” A tram isn’t just “frightfully agreeable” for its sleekness but because, while it’s raining outside, he’s dry within, a typical Walser revelation. In the great city, all “is simultaneously droll and sacrosanct.”
At the time (1905-1914), Berlin was organized by class, with aspiring writer Walser a mischievous social climber vaguely uncertain of his own purpose in the loud whole. His portraits — there are 38 — are aggressively if innocently observant and chock with kernels of beauty (in the theater “you inhale bedroom air while striding across mountains like the man with Seven League Boots.”) He’s a supremely feminine writer (“I could practically be a mother, or so I imagine…”), attentive to softer details many male writers would tend to bypass (W.G. Sebald has suggested he tumbled by chance into the wrong gender). He is mirthful. He glides.
Only later pieces, “watercolor” studies of sad landladies, does he betray a melancholy that would later open into chronic depression. It is then that he absorbs the downside of city life. “Venture into that savage metropolis, dear reader, and you will see for yourself how abruptly glamour and good fortune alternate there with deprivation and worry…” Artistically shut out by Nazi Germany, the increasingly bewildered Walser was institutionalized for most of his adult life, dying — as it were — in “captivity.”