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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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One classic scene, and one modern scene. That’s what Bérénice had to perform at the November entrance competition. She didn’t have a partner, but she was assured she could find one that day—a second- or third-year student who would give Bérénice her cues. What text to choose? Véra Korène had suggested scenes from Don’t Fool with Love and Iphigenia that leant themselves to virtuoso performances. “Great classics, with material that can shine, even without experience, but be careful, it’s all or nothing: a good reading can win the day. On the other hand, the jury can be more severe with these show-stopper bits that they’ve heard a thousand times. Watch out for the bell ringing!” The bell ringing? Bérénice learned that the jury could use that to stop a candidate’s performance, sometimes after only one verse. The bell meant they showed you the door.

July, August, September, October. Four months to prepare, without ever taking a course or attending a class at the Conservatory or following the custom of the aspiring actor presenting a scene in front of each of the professors to get their suggestions before the competition for admission. Bérénice only had Véra Korène’s few directions, her own will to succeed, and her faith in her lucky star. “After all, to get here Papa somehow crossed Russia almost entirely on foot,” she sometimes told herself for encouragement. End of August, the...

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