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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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Saturday, September 7, 1940. Two days had passed since the terrible day of the meeting of the board of directors. The Comédie-Française officially reopened at 7:30 p.m. For three quarters of an hour, throngs of invited guests and the public poured through the ticket gate, happy to be back in their theater. The pillars of the colonnade were resplendent, dazzling with the aura of the sick who have emerged from a long convalescence, delighted once again to be mixing with the world and life. The ushers taking tickets in tuxedos displayed the solemn expressions reserved for red-letter days, the secretary general mixed in with the general hubbub, liberally dispensing smiles, handshakes, and witticisms.

Bérénice was not on stage that evening. Only men participated in the reading of texts selected by the author Edmond Pilon for the opening performance. The principal actress sat in the theater next to Alain Béron. Tomorrow it would be her turn to go on stage. She looked at her friend, guessed with a single glance the somber thoughts he was harboring at the sight of the German uniforms taking their seats in the orchestra. As a sign of friendship, she pressed his hand, which he quickly withdrew. The lights dimmed. In the gathered silence, the poet and the actress could detect murmurs of disapproval. Traditionalists of the Comédie-Française criticized Copeau for going on stage—this was contrary to custom. ← 150 | 151 →

The...

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