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The French writer Tereska Torrès, who was best known for her controversial pulp novel Women’s Barracks, died on Thursday in her home in Paris. She was 92.
Torrès wrote 16 books in all, both novels and memoirs. Her last book, published earlier this year, was Mission Secrète (Tallandier), a memoir of detailing her campaign to “help the ‘black Jews’ of Ethiopia to emigrate to Israel.”
The NY Times reports:
Though she wrote more than a dozen novels and several memoirs, Ms. Torrès remained inadvertently best known for “Women’s Barracks,” published in the United States in 1950 as a paperback original.
The book is a fictionalized account of the author’s wartime service in London with the women’s division of the Free French forces. Though its sexual scenes appear tame to 21st-century eyes, the author’s forthright depiction of the liaisons of the women in her unit with male resistance members — and with one another — scandalized midcentury America.
Originally published by Gold Medal Books, “Women’s Barracks” has sold four million copies in the United States and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. It was reprinted in 2005 by the Feminist Press in its Femmes Fatales series, which features pulp, noir and mystery novels by women of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Torrès’ novel was condemned in 1952 by the U.S House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. The Committee found the book offensive and lurid.
Ms. Torrès, who was married for many years to the American journalist and writer Meyer Levin, stated in interviews that she was disappointed at what she viewed as the cultural “fascination with the novel’s scenes of erotic love between women at the expense of all else.”
In an interview with the The Independent in 2007, Torrès stated, “I look on the Internet and I learn that I am the literary queen of the lesbians, the person who wrote the first lesbian, erotic pulp novel. I hate it. I hate it. If you look at Women’s Barracks, there are five main characters. Only one and a half of them can be considered a lesbian.”
Tereska was born in Paris as Tereska Szwarc in 1920, the daughter of Marek and Guina Szwarc. Her father, Marek, was a noted painter and sculptor and her mother, Guina, was a novelist and poet.
A war heroine, the powerful accounts of Torrès’ life superseded many of the narrative arcs found in her ficition.
The Independent reports:
In June 1940, Tereska, then aged 19, travelled through Spain and Portugal to join the small group of men and women who answered Charles de Gaulle’s appeal to continue the fight against the Nazis from London. She said she did not hear de Gaulle’s celebrated BBC radio broadcast and had never heard of this “obscure colonel”. But she decided that she must go to London as soon as a friend told her about his appeal because of her “shame” at Marshall Philippe Pétain’s surrender to the Germans.
She was enrolled into the women’s section of the Free French forces, originally known, as she delighted in pointing out, as the “corps feminin” [female body]. Her first novel, Le sable et l’écume, begun when she was 17, was published in 1946. The book was a critical success but brought in little money. Hence the decision to write Women’s Barracks, which was translated into English by Levin and sold to an American publisher of pulp novels. Torrès refused for more than half a century to allow it to be published in French because, she said, it gave the “wrong impression” of what the Free French forces were doing in London.
In 2005, the website Salon interviewed Torrès about the popularity of Women’s Barracks. Torrès stated:
French literature is full of sexual description — Flaubert and Proust and everything. I felt I was extremely tame! The book spoke very delicately about the few matters of sexual encounters. But so what? I hadn’t invented anything — that’s the way women lived during the war in London. Generally in London the atmosphere in the war was very free, because there was a feeling that every day could be the last. People later thought it was so shocking.