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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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Bérénice had just left her theater class. The boss had not been nice to one of her friends who had acted the role of Sylvette in Edmond Rostand’s Romanesques. He had criticized her because she hadn’t worked hard enough on her scene. As he often did, he made misogynistic comments and then threatened to quit the Conservatory. He had changed his mind and upset his class by suddenly claiming that direction did not exist, that scenery was useless. What a paradox, what an act of provocation on the part of someone who was about to be praised for his production of Molière’s The School for Wives at the Athénée with the marvelous sets of Christian Bérard.

When she entered the dining hall, Bérénice was swept up in a group of students who were leaving André Brunot’s class—he was the main topic of conversation. Robert Manuel, an excellent raconteur, had an affection for his professor that bordered on veneration, reinforced by a mutual predilection for andouille sausage, beef boiled in coarse salt, and Beaujolais.

“The other night, we were invited to the home of an Italian princess. Despite her aristocratic origins, the lady was—how should I put it? —‘as stingy as somebody from Auvergne.’ … The ‘feast’ we were offered consisted only of tiny sandwiches and instead of the wines we had anticipated: fruit juice! General despair! Melancholy glances from Brunot! ‘Don’t worry, kids, I’ll lift...

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