Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Women's Barracks, by Tereska Torres
(hb; 1950, 2003, 2005. Afterword by Judith Mayne; Interview with the author by Joan Schenkar.)
From the back cover:
"When a group of French women collect in a London barracks during World War II, their khaki uniforms cannot conceal their sexual desire - often for each other. Touchingly written from the point of view of one of the younger and more innocent 'girl soldiers,' Women's Barracks reflects Tereska Torres' experiences in the Free French forces assembled under General Charles de Gaulle. Condemned in 1952 for its 'artful appeal to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy' by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, Torres' novel was an underground phenomenon, selling four million copies in the United States and many more abroad. The first 'lesbian pulp,' it remains relevant and intensely readable today."
Women's Barracks is an engaging pulp that mixes World War II events, mostly-female characters who read like real people - they were, though they were renamed - and those characters' romantic/idealistic pursuits.
The women who signed up for the Free French Forces under de Gaulle were looking for wartime battles; instead, they got sent to London to become file clerks, hostesses, maids and other support-related jobs that kept them from the front lines. Their romantic (and sometimes cynical) notions progressed, a few of them into Sapphic embraces (shown in brief gestures, passionate kisses and, for the 1940s/1950s, suggestive dialogue), some of them into heterosexual embraces - and some, like the narrator, who places moral judgments on the women she's observing.
[In the 2004 Interview with Torres that follows the novel, Torres said that the moral judgments were insisted upon by the publishers, who wanted to avoid prosecution by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, and other like-minded groups. Also, Torres said, if any character represented her, it was Ursula, who falls for an older, cynical dyke (Claude), not the friendly-but-morally-pristine narrator (Tereska, in name only).]
Excellent read, this, one that meshes familiar, terrifying wartime concerns (e.g., the London bombardments, friends and lovers geting killed in battles or bombings) with, as Torres insisted in the Interview, real attachments (romantic and otherwise), and what resulted from the war and those attachments.
Women's Barracks is worth owning, for pulp and history readers, who don't mind a bit of genrification in their spicy word soup.