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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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For a long time she kept her first work schedule as a member of the troupe with her at all times, meticulously folded in her wallet. What an incredible joy to possess this document that recorded each day, hour by hour, the sequence of tasks for employees of the theater. Their symbol was a hive and there was no better image to describe the work of these industrious bees. On stage in the Salle Richelieu, the committee meeting room, then the Brohan Foyer … From eight in the morning till eleven at night, the activity never stopped. Bérénice had to arrive by one in the afternoon on stage at the Richelieu Theater for her first tech rehearsal in her capacity as a member of the company.

She felt proud as she crossed the threshold of the stage door, left a humble bouquet of violets by the bust of Molière, an offering to the Boss to ward off failure. When she arrived at the theater, the stage was set. She recognized the massive armoire and the door to the hidden stairwell described in the opening stage directions of Hernani. Her dress wasn’t ready yet, it needed alterations, the previous actress who had played the role was a bit more full figured. So she just wore her street clothes, a little red summer dress, her hair pulled up in a chignon because of the August heat. The other members of the troupe took their time arriving....

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