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Bérénice 1934-44

An Actress in Occupied Paris

Isabelle Stibbe

The winner of nine literary awards in France, including the Prix Simone Veil, celebrating a woman of action, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris is Isabelle Stibbe’s poignant debut novel. Now translated into English by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel, Bérénice 1934–44 reveals a young woman’s struggle to fulfill her career aspirations while concealing herself in war-torn France.

Bérénice yearns to become an actress, but her parents insist that career is not proper for a girl. She defies her Jewish family to become the leading younger actress in the Comédie-Française, France’s most renowned theater, right when the Nazis occupy France. Bérénice hides her true identity and last name to avoid detection. Living in a world without tolerance and torn between two lovers, Bérénice must choose between her passion for the stage, and her allegiance to freedom and to her Jewish heritage.

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Knowing where you want to end up doesn’t necessarily mean you have any idea how to get there. Of course she’d heard of that institution called the Conservatory, but at age eight, she didn’t have any clue how you got in. Her confidant, Colette, though she was clever, even brazen, didn’t know any more than she did. While waiting, the certainty that a day would come when something, someone would change her life, allowed her to remain true to her hopes. With that determination of ambitious children who never doubt for a second that the world will be favorable and shining for them, Bérénice got it into her head to read every single play she could lay her hands on. She regularly bought plays with her modest savings, she borrowed them from the library of Colette’s parents or took them out from the school’s collection. Always with a play in hand, learning the texts by heart, training her memory, only breathing through the theater: that was Bérénice’s childhood. Her parents knit their brows again, finding this passion much longer lasting than the usual infatuations of children, but they saw one advantage in it: it was a tranquil passion.

Bérénice began methodically, which is to say in chronological order. First the classics, Molière, Racine, Corneille, and even those forgotten ones like poor Rotrou, whose complete works she found at school. After that, Voltaire and the romantics, Hugo, Musset, Dumas, and...

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