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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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The paving stones of this street seem to be magnetized, thought Bérénice. She was back on the Rue de Madrid. It was no longer a dream, from now on the street belonged to her, at least number 14, her student identification card proved it. She was already in love with the half-open casement windows revealing a view of the garden full of blue paulownia trees, the hum of instruments wafting from the music classes enchanted her, from the time she entered her literature class, she felt reborn, forgetting the painful morning, the ripped cloth. Immediately she adored her first day at the Conservatory, even the required class that most of her friends did not have to take. Even that course was more worthwhile than the antiquated curriculum she had endured in high school. Everything about Georges-Gustave Toudouze, her literature professor, was theatrical, from his goatee out of a different era, to his impeccable ascot. If that kind sexagenarian tried to impress his pupils with his academic exploits—judge for yourself: former resident of the Villa Medici and author of highly respected works!—his strange claims were actually quite amusing. Whether because of his heredity (a novelist father), or his passion for the sea (childhood in Brittany), during his first class he launched into a diatribe that the standard comic character of Scapin was from Malta. Why? On what insignificant stage direction was he basing his claim? Mysterious! But he wouldn’t let go of it: Scapin was...

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