Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Fiction

Mysterious Kor by Elizabeth Bowen

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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.)

10 thoughts on “Mysterious Kor by Elizabeth Bowen”

  1. Sarah, thanks so much for participating in Irish Short Story Week (March 12 to March 31-yes long week!) I love the stories of Elizabeth Bowen. A very important part of the interior life of Elizabeth Bowen comes for her love of the novel by Henry Rider Haggard, She, which is set in good part in the mysterious city of Kor. Bowen said she never felt more alive than in the war years in London. She worked as an air raid warden, patrolling the streets at night making sure everyone had their blackout curtains up and were in shelters. She was exposed to real danger. The Manchester Guarding has just posted a reading of one of her stories, “Home Coming” that I like a lot.

    “Mysterious Kor” is a wonderful story and I really increased by understanding of the story from your post.

    Thanks again for your participation. From March 23 to March 29 I will be focusing on Emerging Irish Women Authors and Irish Fairy and Folk Tales as selected by William Butler Yeats.

    1. Thanks for your comment – it’s so interesting to hear that about Elizabeth Bowen’s experience during the war. I really want to read some more of her books now – I’ve read two of her novels and loved them but this is the only one of her short stories I’ve read. I will definitely be exploring all the other posts on Irish Short Story Week and am looking forward to the two topics you have coming up. I’m sure it will give me lots of ideas for books I want to read.

  2. Beautiful review. I’m so glad you wrote it. I was intrigued by this story but I have it in a German translation and couldn’t find the English title. Now I know it. I read “Summer Night” instead and it has many similar elements. The enchanted night and as if a spell had been cast. I need to read this story soon.
    Mel’s comment is very interesting. I used to love “She” as a teenager. I’d love to read her biography.

    1. Thanks, Caroline! It’s interesting that you loved the same book when you were a teenager. I would also like to know much more about her life as well as reading the other novels that I haven’t read. Summer Night does sound similar – I think she can create a wonderful atmosphere through her writing.

  3. Very sorry I missed adding your post to the update page-Irish Short Story Week-yes a long week and getting longer, until April 31, I am focusing in part now on Emerging Irish Women writers

    Have you read yet Oh Madam” by Elizabeth Bowen. I love this story about a woman and her maid walking through her house which has been nearly wrecked in the Blitz in London in WWII.

  4. Hi-I just did a post on She by H. Rider Haggard, the source for the city of Kor. This book was an important part of the interior life of Elizabeth Bowen. I am really glad you posted on this story. I might post one two or three of her ghost stories soon. By the way Irish Short Stories Week (getting longer and longer) is now extended to May 1 (at least!)

  5. Hi I just wanted to stop by to invite you to participate once again in Irish Short Story Month-I have found four Bowen short stories set in Ireland, maybe we can split them

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