Another story from Wave Me Goodbye this weekend. Elizabeth Bowen is known for her wartime stories. I read in the book's biographical section that "the war years could justifiably be called the peak of her life; she was at the height of her writing powers, identified closely with England at crisis and she was also deeply in love." She worked as a journalist as well as an air-raid warden in London during the Blitz. She also reported to the Ministry of Information on Irish attitudes during the war, she herself was Anglo-Irish having been born in Dublin but raised in England. Her experiences sound quite interesting and I'm sure she's another author with a fascinating personal story. (And I bet there is a biography out there about her, too).
I've read that she was an excellent short story writer and have read a few of her novels, though enough time has passed that my memory of them is fuzzy. She's very good at evoking an atmospheric wartime London. The Wave Me Goodbye collection includes her story "The Mysterious Kôr", and she begins by showing the reader a very foreign sounding London.
"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. The futility of the black-out became laughable: from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles overhead."
But the Germans are not bombing on this moonlit night. Although the city is packed with people, the streets are empty, and two lovers are walking with no place to go to be alone. Pepita describes to her soldier-lover, Arthur, Mysterious Kôr. Kôr, an imaginary city from a poem, is a "completely forsaken city, as high as cliffs and as white as bones, with no history--." On this night she imagines London to be Kôr, but it is also a place she escapes to from the horror of the war wanting to take Arthur with her. In reality Pepita must take him back to the tiny flat she shares with another young woman where he'll have to sack out on an uncomfortable sofa. There's not really enough room for a third person and no privacy for the couple.
Bowen uses Kôr as a contrast to the ugly realities of war, a place to escape to and be alone, something impossible to do in bombed-out, overcrowded London. There's more to the story than I've described, and Bowen likes to use imagery and symbolism, which I had to look up to get the full meaning of the story. She shows how war interrupts and inconveniences the lives of three disparate people and how they cope (or not) with dire circumstances. This was an interesting and well done story and shows once again how much an author can convey in just a very few pages.