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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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She won’t be able to tell her children or her grandchildren: “Oh, we should watch Stage Entrance together,” Marc Allégret’s 1938 film that she discovered when it was first released in theaters, a film that recalled to her so vividly her three years at the Rue de Madrid, that’s exactly the way it was in Louis Jouvet’s class, just like in the movie, and of course that scene in the laundry where the boss avenges all the actors whose parents thwarted their passion for the stage. She won’t be able to watch and watch again that movie with them, she won’t be able to tell them about her first day at the Conservatory, her eyes drawn to the raised platform when she entered the classroom. So this was that wooden platform they would step up to each week for three years to perform for the master. It would be with the help of that backdrop and those wings that they would create the illusion of the stage. And that piano, there, in the corner, she would soon discover that it was for the music students. At the back of the room, far from the platform, a long wooden plank riveted to the wall was set up for the auditors. If Bérénice had not done so well on the entrance exam, she would have sat there, with them, on the wrong side, on the side of those who had not been judged worthy of full admission...

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