When thinking of Carson McCullers, one thinks of sad grotesques populating southern gothic towns or of plain old despair. One does not think of weird fiction. Weird fiction being a landscape in which seeming impossibilities go unexplained, it’s exactly the sort of loosely defined genre that anyone could stumble upon by accident since the only real criteria is that it must be “weird.” These days people seem to use the term as a synonym for Horror but I think that’s too limiting as I can find no better genre to capture the not-supernatural but subtle bizarreness of ‘Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland.’
The story sets out to describe the interactions between the plain and competent loner Mr. Brook and the exotic foreign composer Madame Zilensky when she comes to America to teach music at his college. He appears dull, but tolerant of others while she is presented as at once dignified and scatterbrained. She loses her luggage on the journey but brings with her three boys, all blond, blank-eyed and beautiful. The boys give Mr. Brook the creeps from the outset. For example, something about the Zilensky children subconsciously bothered him when they were in a house, and finally he realized that what troubled him was the fact that the Zilensky boys never walked on a rug; they skirted it single file on the bare floor, and if a room was carpeted, they stood in the doorway and did not go inside.
You don’t read McCullers for the prose, of course. One thing I wish she’d done with this story was to have employed a first-person narration. Every enigma in the text, once described, is followed by a variation of “suddenly he realized that…” A dull linkage that would have worked better in monologue, perhaps. She usually gets paired with Flannery O’Connor but to judge from their short stories, O’Connor had far sharper style.
Spoilers beyond. Can you spoil a fiction that makes no sense?
The rest of the story concerns itself with the oddness and inapproachability of the hardworking Madame Zilensky who, for all her stories of foreign climes and strange people, is quite alone in the world. Mr. Brook discovers soon enough that she’s a pathological liar in any case and worse, one without any possible motivation. The point is made that the lady’s inventions, such as meeting the King of Finland (which is a democracy) are more to please herself than others.
Mr. Brook might pity her but his tolerance of the peculiarities of others ends with liars apparently, so he confronts her with the facts. She obstinately sticks to her story but with such an edge of panic that, not surprisingly, he relents, feeling suddenly like a murderer. The essence of the tale (it’s very short, by the way) thus becomes that of tolerance and understanding toward the lost, confused souls in this world. The Sane should pity the Deluded, if you wanted to make a parable out of it.
And so it is the final paragraph that makes this story deliciously wrong and is the reason I’m writing about it at all. It’s a casual addendum that changes the meaning of what you just read without even referring to it. Having returned to his paperwork Mr. Brook sat looking out of the window of his office. The trees along the quiet Westbridge street were almost bare, and the gray buildings of the college had a calm, sad look. As he idly took in the familiar scene, he noticed the Drakes’ old Airedale waddling along down the street. It was thing he had watched a hundred times before, so what was it that stuck him as strange? Then he realized with a kind of cold surprise that the old dog was running along backward. Mr. Brook does not make further note of the incident and it is not explained in the text. It serves only as a kicker for the audience.
The story is about truth. Mr. Brook believes that he has the monopoly on truth but the enigma of the Zilensky family is not solved in the end, nor can it be dismissed as a pack of lies. The world is strange and things happen that just can’t be reasonably explained. After all, if Mr. Brook can see a dog walking backwards along a street, than why can’t Madame Zilensky have seen the King of Finland?