Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way.
’Mysterious Kôr’ describes two lovers wandering blacked-out London during the Blitz. The blasted city is “drenched” in moonlight and looks like “the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct”. The lovers have nowhere to go. Pepita lives with virginal Callie, who has offered to share her bed with her roommate so that Arthur, a soldier on leave, can sleep on the sitting-room divan that usually serves as Pepita’s bed. Unimpressed by the prospect, they stay out on the streets pretending the city is ‘Mysterious Kôr’, from H Rider Haggard’s novel She, by way of an Andrew Lang poem (“Mysterious Kôr thy walls forsaken stand / Thy lonely towers beneath a lonely moon”).
There are many things to admire about Bowen’s 1944 story, but the thing I love most about it is what Pepita says when Arthur challenges her interpretation of Lang’s poem. “What it tries to say doesn’t matter: I see what it makes me see”. There is so much truth about the relationship between reader and text in these two lines (just as there is so much truth about the relationship between women and men in the way Arthur quibbles in the middle of a game of make-believe). At the end of the story, wrapped in dreams, Pepita returns to Kôr alone as Callie and Arthur talk in the pre-dawn darkness. This story, like most of the stories in this anthology, contains a good deal of ambiguity, and different readers will emerge from it with different impressions. Is that frustrating to some people? It seems to be, although I can’t understand why. Ambiguity is the space in a story into which we readers can insert ourselves and interpret, interrogate, interact.
From The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin 1983. Read it, possibly illegally, here