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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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Her life was transformed overnight, she was surrounded by fifty new friends, fellow students in the first through third years, bound by a brand new camaraderie. Her triumph made her popular, and to that was added the next day, as Madame Lignières had announced, the news item in Ars Nova magazine. Just a brief item—after all, it wasn’t about the exit exam, far more celebrated—but it was from the influential pen of the fearsome Jean-René Daunat:

“The entrance exam! Just imagine what anxiety it provokes, what hopes it elicits, what memories it creates! Why? It is of decisive importance: admission is the first step to success, the ‘open sesame’ to a first prize and then being signed by the Comédie-Française or the Odéon. With failure comes discouragement you never recover from.

“That is certainly not what awaits the beautiful and luminous young lady who appeared for the first time before the Conservatory’s jury. Bérénice de Lignières—remember that name.

“Her judiciously chosen excerpts allowed her to dominate the competition. I detected her strong temperament in the role of Camille, combined with born instinct as Iphigenia. I was amazed by the authority she showed in this role, arduous even for more experienced actresses.

“Mademoiselle de Lignières was ranked first among all admitted students. Her beginner’s attempt was a masterful attempt. If this young woman with ← 48 | 49 → her predestined given name...

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