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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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Two days had passed since the arrival of Nathan’s ultimatum, but Bérénice still hadn’t been able to make a decision. She showed the letter to Alain but she found him strangely distracted, unavailable. Every time she tried to talk to him about it, it seemed like an inopportune moment. Either the lawyer had to be at the Palace of Justice, or he had clients visiting, or he had shut himself in his office—an important file, a complex case—those were his only explanations. On the afternoon of the second day, or rather at the end of the day, after examining and reexamining the problem in her head without finding a solution, she felt the need to reread Nathan’s letter. Where was it? It wasn’t in her bedroom, or in the living room, or in the kitchen. Bérénice finally remembered that her friend had taken it with him to his office while trying to find the right moment to read it carefully.

After a slight hesitation, she decided to enter his sanctuary. It was the first time she had gone in there by herself. Except for the living room, it was the largest room if not the lightest in the house. An elegant Empire writing desk, which undoubtedly had come with the house, served as the poet-lawyer’s worktable. Some chairs, a settee, and a Thonet lectern, provided a more modern counterpoint. The walls, covered in wainscoting and panels of bottle-green leather gave...

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