It’s strange how the short story Mysterious Kor has stayed in my mind ever since I read it a few years ago. I think it had such an impact on me because of two things: the relationships between the three characters – a young woman called Pepita, her boyfriend Arthur and her flatmate Callie – and the captivating images of a deserted, endless, moonlit city that is both wartime London and the ghost city Kor.
The setting is the city at night, at the entrance to a park, near an Underground station from which Pepita emerges with Arthur, a soldier home on leave from the war. I found the most striking aspect of the story to be the stunning descriptions of the moonlit night and how they manage to hint at the atmosphere of London during the Second World War. The moon is compared to a searchlight which exposes everything, making the city seem unearthly, ‘like the moon’s capital, shallow, cratered, extinct’, and causes people to hide indoors out of fear, not of being bombed because that would not happen on a moonlit night, but of ‘something more immaterial’. The way people are described in this story is also unusual; they look at each other without expression or seem to move mechanically, obeying commands. The earth seems to have been transformed into an alien place, by the incredible brightness of the moon or by the war.
The title of the story comes from a poem Pepita quotes to Arthur about an abandoned, dreamlike city which she thinks about all the time. Kor has a powerful hold on Pepita and I think the story suggests why she needs this inward symbol of emptiness and timelessness during the chaos and deprivations of the war. She tells Arthur that Kor has ‘no history’, it’s been deserted for thousands of years, but it is strong and cannot be destroyed; it is a possible refuge from transience and danger.
When Pepita tells Arthur she hates civilisation (as the poem says, ‘the world is disenchanted’) and she would laugh on the day when Kor was the only city left in existence, he challenges her, saying ‘I thought girls thought about people.’ Pepita replies ‘How can anyone think about people if they’ve got any heart? I don’t know how other girls manage: I always think about Kor.’ To me, this means she can’t bear to think about reality, that she has shut down her sympathy in order to survive, and that Kor represents an unchanging, imaginary world to which she can escape. However, the way Elizabeth Bowen writes about London on that moonlit night doesn’t make it seem at all disenchanted to me; there is the impression that a spell has been cast on the whole city. This might be because the boundary between the real city of London and the unreal city of Kor has become blurred; to Pepita, London is Kor (‘you mean we’re there now, that here’s there, that now’s then?’).
Another compelling attraction of Kor to Pepita is the privacy and isolation it represents. Mysterious Kor conveys the way in which people were forced together during wartime. Pepita and Arthur can wander the streets, bars and cinemas of the city without finding a place they can be alone or that’s not crammed with people, and then as it gets late they must return to the flat that Pepita shares with Callie. The way people have to share their living space seems to be a change brought by the war. The girls’ flat is a Victorian drawing room divided into three rooms, and in a flash the moonlight reveals the lost splendour of the Victorian world that has now vanished. Kor, on the other hand, is vast and can be explored endlessly in dreams. Pepita imagines it as a world that she and Arthur would have all to themselves. This suggests an impulse that could, I think, be a result of the war: to leave this world behind and begin a new one, in the blank, white surroundings of Kor.
As I said, in addition to the wonderful setting, the relationships between the characters also made the story memorable for me. Pepita is secretive and moody and resents Callie for not finding somewhere else to go and allowing her and Arthur to be alone in the flat, while Callie is innocently tactless, living vicariously through Pepita’s relationship. She is very concerned with doing what is proper, while Pepita is more restless. The story revolves around fleeting but personal conversations, showing how intimacy can be created in the crowded wartime city, as Arthur wonders why Pepita is so haunted by the city of Kor. In describing Kor and the atmosphere of London at night, Elizabeth Bowen’s beautiful writing creates vivid images that stayed with me for a long time.
(I wrote this post for Irish Short Story Week at The Reading Life.)