PARIS — Simone Signoret may be losing her eyesight, but the husky-voiced actress who played the sensuous older woman in "Room at the Top" and the aging prostitute in "Madame Rosa" has not lost her touch.
Signoret, 63, has topped France's best-seller list with a poignant novel tracing the lives of two families of Jewish immigrants from 1921-44.
"Adieu Volodia," released by Fayard in late January, also is a tribute to Signoret's courage. By the time she completed revisions on the 566-page manuscript, she could no longer decipher her own handwriting because of a deteriorating retina condition.
"I've always recognized the connection between the mind and the body," she told literary critic Pierre Demeron in a recent magazine interview. "My eyes held out until I finished the novel. I had the feeling they needed a vacation, but, unfortunately, they haven't come back."
The novel is crafted around four historical landmarks, including the assassination of Simon Petlioura, a Ukranian ex-general who ordered the pogroms against thousands of Polish Jews after World War I. It is a bittersweet portrait of struggling Jewish immigrants who flee persecution in one country, only to face it 20 years later in another.
Simone Signoret, born Simone Kaminker in Wiesbaden, Germany, was raised in a bourgeois Paris suburb, and bears little resemblance to the poor immigrants whose lives she traces from 1921 through the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
Signoret, who took her mother's non-Jewish name, was not forced into hiding during the war. She worked as a film extra, where she was to meet her companion of the last 36 years, singer-actor Yves Montand.
"Adieu Volodia" is, nevertheless, filled with scenes from both her life and Montand's.
"I described the joyous celebration of 'becoming French' and getting papers exactly the way it happened in Montand's family," she said, referring to Montand's immigrant Italian parents. "The hours spent among non-French speaking dressmakers being fitted for costumes and the shame I felt when my mother forced me to return a Japanese-made toothbrush during the war to a pharmacist who could have cared less--those are right out of my own life."
Signoret said her novel is the result of her inability to capture on paper the "essential truth of my experience. It was easier when I turned the 'I' into 'she.' "
The novel, 18 months in the making, was written from her home in Normandy. "I kept bothering my family to read each chapter, never really sure whether I had a book or not," she said.
"One day, my neighbor, a dear lady who had been reading the manuscript in installments, told me that she would think about the Guttmans and the Roginskis (characters in the book) during the week. For her, they existed. That's when I knew I had a novel."
"Adieu Volodia," is named for a character in the novel, Volodia, the Guttmans' long lost cousin whom they presumed dead. Volodia miraculously turns up in Paris, but is whisked away by vaguely suspicious authorities before he can visit his family. Years later, the family learned he died in Siberia, circumstances unknown, soon after his Paris visit.
"This is exactly what happened with my cousin from Bratislava, who was not allowed to approach me," Signoret said. "It shows how carefully things are organized to make sure people don't find each other, meet and talk."
"Adieu Volodia" is Signoret's first work of fiction, though it is not her first literary work. "Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be," her memoirs published in 1977, was a best seller translated into dozens of languages.
"People are always amazed when an actor shows talent as a writer of fiction," she recently told a literary talk show host.