In the summer prior to his thirtieth birthday, the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth changed trains at a railway junction just south of the centre of Berlin. The station was called Gleisdreieck and it made a powerful impression on Roth’s imagination. “I must declare that I am quite taken by Gleisdreieck,” he wrote in a feuilleton piece published in the Frankfurter Zeitung in late July that year.
For Joseph Roth, Gleisdreieck was more than merely a railway junction. It was a pivot of the metropolis, a place with metaphysical qualities that captured the essence of a new modernity. The name of the railway station was as intriguing to Joseph Roth as it is today to passengers who change trains at Gleisdreieck. For its name does not refer to the area of Berlin in which the station is located. It is inspired instead by the railway itself.
Dürfen die kleinen Herzschläge noch vernehmbar bleiben, wo der dröhnende einer Welt betäubt?
Can little heartbeats still be heard where the big booming one of the world deafens us?
From: Joseph Roth’s ‘Bekenntnis zum Gleisdreieck’ (1924) —
Gleisdreieck means ‘triangular railway junction’, a prosaic station name to be sure, and a confusing one in 2013, for nowadays it is not triangular at all but a place where two metro routes cross at right angles. Both lines are indecisive about this encounter, twisting and turning through sharp angles as they approach Gleisdreieck, creating a trajectory that surely prompts many passengers to wonder in quite which direction they might now be heading. Along the way there are fractured views of houses and parkland, abandoned railway sidings and warehouses. At the station itself, both routes are elevated far above the ground and from the platforms there are fine views over the Berlin cityscape.
Joseph Roth’s affirming credo in favour of Gleisdreieck has slipped below the literary horizon in recent years, although a brave English translation by Michael Hofmann of Roth’s original article is included in the 2003 collection What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920–1933 (Granta Books). Brave because this particular article by Joseph Roth is written in a lyrical and complex style, full of allusions that defy easy translation.
Roth’s Berlin, even in those Weimar years, was a dreary place — not at all like the self-indulgently gay city depicted by Christopher Isherwood. Yet at Gleisdreieck, Roth laces his habitual melancholia with a vein of optimism. This preserve of technology and machines might be a most unnatural corner of Berlin, yet it has an elemental nature of its own. Here there are no meadows and woodlands, no glades or growing crops. Instead there is just the rhythm of machines and men who are enslaved to those mechanical rhythms.