Many thespians have attempted to bring Franz Kafka’s prose to life over the years, and those who have enjoyed relative success—Jeremy Irons, Tony Perkins, Ulrich Mühe—have usually focused on the creepy or hapless side of Kafka. This makes sense, given that Kafka’s work is creepy, and his protagonists are hapless. However, what is often missing from the dramatic representations of such fiction as The Trial and The Castle—often left out of the popular conception of Kafka altogether—is the humor.
This is especially true of Kafka’s most famous work, The Metamorphosis, in which readers are often so aghast at Gregor Samsa’s visceral new “monstrous insect” body that they forget to notice how hilarious that novella is. I mean it: Gregor’s first thought upon catching sight of his gross little legs is that he hates his job. The entire first scene, in which he attempts to get out of bed and make excuses to his boss, is a sort of droll slapstick.
Indeed, the primary reason so many of Kafka’s readers miss or underestimate his humor is that it’s so straight-faced. This is why we are all fortunate that the BBC is re-airing its 2006 radio broadcast of Kafka’s masterpiece, a slightly abridged version narrated by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch.
Kafka himself could not have invented a better ambassador of his work: Cumberbatch’s trademark style (most apparent in Sherlock) is a withering, perfectly enunciated deadpan whose inflections somehow betray, three-fourths of the way through any sentence, sincere doubts that everyone will be in on the joke. Even better, this is poker face the way Kafka wrote it: tinged with at least some amount of creepiness, thanks to Cumberbatch’s unique ability to both look and sound like a very genteel sociopath (or, if you prefer, dragon).
The BBC is re-airing The Metamorphosis in honor of the 100th anniversary of its original publication, cause for both celebration and reflection among Kafka’s fans. How does it hold up today?
Many critics originally saw Gregor’s transformation as a literal embodiment of the disgust he feels participating in his family’s seemingly-endless cycle of consumption and debt; the Samsas owe Gregor’s boss a tidy sum, but they live relatively large in their well-appointed apartment while he alone works it off at a maddeningly slow pace. Once their initial disgust subsides, the other members of Gregor’s family have no choice but to get jobs, and the “happy” ending of the story involves Gregor’s demise and their continuing success in the workforce. A number of these elements ring depressingly true a century later—especially the vision of a grown man living with his parents, and the cycle of consumption and debt.
However, other elements of The Metamorphosis provoke a new kind of laugh today—specifically, the rueful chuckle of Oh, you thought things were bad then, did you? This darkest humor will be apparent even to those who otherwise don’t find Kafka funny (i.e. those who are wrong). Perhaps the tableau of Herr Samsa swatting at his six-foot-long insect son with a rolled-up newspaper isn’t as amusing to you as it is to me—but you know what might be, in a ha ha sob sort of way? The idea, in 2015, that a single traveling salesman’s salary can support a family of four and two domestic employees. If that isn’t deadpan humor—unintentional and bleak as it may be—I don’t know what is.