“Miss Torres is a very naughty Aphrodite presiding over a multitude of libidinous extravaganzas.” (Parade of Books)
Some pulps are meant to be skimmed, and the works of Tereska Torrès belong to that category. She favors the Grand Hotel approach to fiction: a group of disparate people are brought together by unusual circumstances and Tereska tells us a series of colorful, unrelated stories about them. She used this technique in Women’s Barracks (1950), the ground-breaking pulp that started the craze for paperback lesbians, and she uses it in The Golden Cage, one result being that you have to search for the lesbian content in the midst of the mostly heterosexual shenanigans. The set-up in Women’s Barracks is that a group of women are brought together when they join the Free French troops during WWII. In the Golden Cage it’s a group of WWII refugees, killing time on the beaches of Portugal while waiting for their exit visas. Think of the opening lines of Casablanca as the hopeful couple turn their eyes to the sky to watch the plane go by: “but others wait in Casablanca, and wait…and wait…and wait…” In The Golden Cage, they distract themselves while they wait with lots of sex.
The Plot: I started off conscientiously reading every word, the poetic reflections on exile, the precocious musings of Janka, the Polish doctor’s daughter and putative source of all the stories; I read all about teenaged Emmanuel, his crush on the actress, his parents backstory; flagging a little, I duly noted Odile, another teenager, her pretty mom, Pascale, and her annoying father, Antoine, who’s obsessed with joining the Free French. And then, inevitably, I began skimming. Faster and faster I skimmed; past Janka’s parents’ marital troubles, past the strange digression into Emmanuel’s father’s conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, past Pascale’s history of bad-housekeeping and general domestic indifference, past bisexual Rodrigo’s fling with the actress, slowing down only slightly at the references to Pascale’s unhealthy desires and curiosities.
Finally I got to the content (page 40, but it seemed much later): Debby, the baby butch who wears her cowboy boots everywhere. She’s not a refugee, but simply on vacation, an English girl, taking her regular holiday with her divorced mom and hot-to-trot big sis, Kiki. Debby develops a big crush on Pascale, and that’s pretty much it for lesbianism. While the other teens are deflowered all around her, Debby moons over Pascale, who’s deep in an affair with Rodrigo. Mid-crush, she happens upon a copy of The Well of Loneliness, reads it, and gets all depressed (as who wouldn’t in those circumstances). Life is not kind to Debby–Pascale’s husband Antoine suspects Pascale is up to something and blames Debby, and Odile doesn’t like her either. Even the refugee kids who don’t dislike her think she’s odd. And I couldn’t help thinking how hot and uncomfortable those cowboy boots would be in the sand!
Pascale eggs Debby on (she uses her as a cover for her affair) and even thinks of experimenting with her, but decadent and full of unhealthy desires as Pascale is, she draws the line at that. Instead she falls into a reverie about the time she once went to a lesbian bar in Paris and made a date with a good-looking butch girl, but then, in an extreme case of homosexual panic, stood her up and married her husband Antoine, whom she’d known for all of three days.
Meanwhile, Antoine keeps trying to join the Free French; Janka’s dad is performing abortions to keep the family finances afloat, and also finds time to make a pass at Odile; Odile loses her virginity to Rodrigo; Emmanuel loses his virginity to the actress, Ariane, and becomes her little boy-toy, although Ariane is also sleeping with Rodrigo and Ludovic. Janka reads a dirty book at Rodrigo’s and cries. Debby’s sister Kiki is followed around by a swarm of Portuguese locals, and Rodrigo proposes to her.
The book concludes with a big party at Rodrigo’s for all the characters before they go their separate ways with their newly acquired exit visas. It’s a kind of bizarre “happy ending” wrap-up to all the sordid goings-on: Pascale recommits to Antoine, and Debby is described in passing, as looking very pretty in a white dress and enjoying the attention of boys. Apparently it was all just a phase–not only Debby’s cowboy boots but everything that happened the whole rest of the book.
Drinking: Very little–Europeans apparently didn’t have the same obsession with alcohol that mid-century American fiction displays. Emmanuel goes to a cafe with his actress and she buys him a lemonade. They drink wine with dinner. That’s about it.
Homo Psychology: Debby analyzes her crush and blames it (again) on her mother, the divorcée party girl who lives off her alimony: “It’s only because I never had a mother, a real mother.” she tells herself, pondering her feelings for Pascale. There’s a nod to the Radclyffe Hall short story “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” in the explanation that Debby gets away with cross-dressing because it’s wartime and the world is topsy-turvy. As for Pascale, I noticed that this is the second instance in two books of domestic incompetence being used as a marker of lesbianism. This then, is why Jane Rule in her lesbian novels of the 60s and 70s always seemed obsessed with making her lesbian characters competent cooks and good housekeepers. I’d always wondered what was behind those perfectly fried eggs and tidy picnics, and now I know.
About the Author: Both Women’s Barracks and Golden Cage are autobiographical; like Janka, Tereska Torrès fled Poland for England via Lisbon; in London she joined the Free French doing secretarial work. She wrote in French, and her books were translated by her second husband, Meyer Levin, whose other connection to homo lit is the novel Compulsion, based on the Leopold-Loeb case. Torrès’s last novel is Le Choix (The Choice), about her parents’ secret conversion to Catholicism. Fans of French Socialism will be interested to know that her first husband, Georges Torrès, was Léon Blum’s step-son.
Barbara’s take: “Novel of the entagled [sic] relationships within a group of refugees caught for a summer in Portugal in 1940. Pascale, near 40, has a Lesbian affair in her past; her marriage is an empty shell, and life is precarious. An English Divorcee’s 15-year-old daughter, Debby, who is so conspicuously masculine that the rest of the cast speaks of her as a burgeoning Lesbian, falls in love with Pascale. The interludes between them and the sections telling of Pascale’s past occupy over one-fifth of the book. The authoress is very sympathetic, but that is to be expected when one recalls that out of her four novels, Miss Torres has treated Lesbianism three times and variance once for a batting average of 1000.”
Comment: Batting averages aside, Tereska Torrès got lucky with Women’s Barracks. It was censured in congress, got a generous amount of free press and became a best-seller. She was the first, in the right spot at the right time, but I find her pulps quite dull. They read as if they were written by an English speaker who was trying to sound foreign (maybe hubby/translator Meyer is to blame). The ratio of pseudo-Freudian-flowery musings to action is unbearably high. The elegiac tone about the teens’ loss of innocence is incredibly tedious. Rodrigo’s decadence–he sleeps with three women, has a porn collection, and decorates with lots of velvet and melted candles–is unconvincing. It all made me think of Emma Donoghue, who wrote in her introduction to Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, about the occasional tedium of researching lesbian lit: “I have had moments of boredom, too, huddled over a microfilm reader in the dark, cranking at speed through yet another dreary three volume novel to see if what the female characters felt for each other had even a flicker of interest to it.”