With Sophie Roell at The Browser, she tagged five notable books on glamour, including:
Out of AfricaRead about the other books Helena Frith Powell tagged at The Browser.
by Isak Dinesen
So onto your next book, “Out of Africa.” How does it relate to glamour?
I chose “Out of Africa” because I find Karen Blixen one of the most inspirational women that I’ve ever come across. And this again goes back to my theory that being glamorous is not just out about being beautiful. Karen Blixen wasn’t very beautiful, she was very striking, and the thing about her that made her so appealing was her imagination, and her brain, and her curiosity about life and other cultures, and her capacity for love and her very sympathetic character. I found the book itself inspirational, and I found the fact that a woman had written it doubly inspirational. It’s quite a manly topic, trying to make a living out of a coffee farm. In some senses she is very masculine, and she even wrote the book under a male pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. But she is also clearly very sexually appealing and lands the best boy on the block, Denys Finch Hatton. Who sadly then dies in an airplane crash.
The book doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the movie. It’s certainly not about her love affair with Denys Finch Hatton — the Robert Redford character. He barely gets a mention.
No, the book is much more about her love for Africa. I think it’s really one of the most lovely declarations of love for Africa ever written. I think if you go to Africa, there is something about it that really captures you, there is something very addictive about it, there is something so romantic about it. And for the English, that’s true of Kenya in particular — we have a romantic image of it because of our combined history and the White Mischief era.
And then the coffee plantation fails and she has to leave and go back to Denmark. And she writes that beautiful, nostalgic, line:
“If I know a song of Africa, of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?”
It is a beautifully written book — particularly amazing if you think that English was her second language, that she was not writing in her native tongue. Or maybe that’s exactly why it is so beautiful. Even just the opening line: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…”
When I was in Kenya I visited her house. You can see the Ngong Hills in the distance. It’s still beautiful there even though the suburbs of Nairobi have slightly started to surround it. But yes, she twice nearly won the Nobel prize, but lost out to Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus.
Visit Helena Frith Powell's website, and read about her top ten list of "sexy French books."
Writers Read: Helena Frith Powell (February 2009).