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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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As it was every evening, the Rue d’Hauteville was full of the clatter of dishwashing and the odors of cooking, and as it did every evening, it exhaled a sweetish aroma, a mixture of onions and vegetable soup. The office clerk who lived on the second floor had just turned his key in the lock, the space-heater salesman on the fifth floor had parked his bicycle in the courtyard, the common folk of Paris had put on their slippers and were anticipating that night’s dinner.

On the third floor, in the Capels’ apartment, Maurice was ensconced in his favorite armchair, reading the newspaper brought by his errand boy who went downstairs every day to buy two irreconcilable publications: the left-wing Le Populaire for his boss, and the ultra-right Action française for himself. As was his custom, Maurice took a devilish pleasure in saying that his assistant handed him the socialist newspaper as if it was poison. He nudged his wife with his elbow and then plunged into reading the speech that Blum, the leader of the Socialists, had given in Narbonne. A shame that Bérénice missed that, he would tell her all about it when she got home, that would give her a good little laugh. Not Blum’s speech—he knew she didn’t give a damn, but the errand boy’s irritated expression—now that was funny!

Maurice Capel was looking through the classifieds: he read them conscientiously, line by line, in...

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