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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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“Mademoiselle de Lignières burns with an inner flame,” wrote Le Jour the next day. Jean-René Daunat enthused: “Yesterday evening a very curious performance of The Misanthrope took place, very far from any presented since 1936. And yet it was the same director and almost the same actors, with the notable exception of Célimène, played for the first time by Bérénice de Lignières. If Aimé Clariond presented a Misanthrope as neurasthenic as when he acted the part three years ago, Bérénice de Lignières has transformed from top to bottom the concept of her character. In the past, Marie Bell gave us a flirt; Florence Hégué, a scatterbrain. With Bérénice de Lignières, Célimène has become a romantic heroine. In doing so, she has perhaps put herself on a collision course with tradition, but she has imbued her character with that suicidal je ne sais quoi that we didn’t know about her. Her serious voice, the dark rings under her eyes, her diaphanous face evoke nights of agitation, her intentionally artificial intensity suggest a young woman marching toward her doom. One might say she was caught in a frantic quest for self-punishment or to make the world pay for an ontological error that it had committed. Literally possessed from the play’s first scenes, Mademoiselle de Lignières manifests incomparable gifts. She is decidedly a pillar of that House, the future of French theatrical art.”

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