Home and Away – Writing the Beautiful Game review: By turns funny and boring – like life
My Struggle author Karl Ove Knausgård gives soccer the glum Norwegian treatment
Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals is treated with appropriate gravitas (“A historic meltdown on every level”). Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game
Karl Ove Knausgård and Fredrik Ekelund Translated by Don Bartlett and Sean Kinsella
Few of the most exciting books being written these days are novels – at least, not the traditionally decked-out novels of plots and characters, where the reader is kept at a distance via time-consuming artifices of story and description. To write fiction of that sort is like playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band: if you learn the chords you can still make a diverting racket, but the moment of the style’s cultural urgency is long past.
Karl Ove Knausgård has been among the most talked-about figures in this movement away from the conventions of narrative fiction. His six-volume autobiographical saga My Struggle contains thousands of pages of humdrum prose and some seriously tedious stretches. However, for readers (like me) who stuck with it, sceptical even while addicted, the devastating, recently-translated fifth volume made it all worthwhile.
Knausgård’s project is unique and admirable. My Struggle offers a comprehensive X-ray of a human soul, illuming every shame and humiliation (and there are many), every joy, grief and tenderness. Karl Ove is an experimental person, living naked in a glass house, taking one for the human team. There must be a great deal that he winces to recall having written – we really do know an awful lot about him – but this going too far is integral to the conception of his humongous auto-novel (and it has indeed been marketed as a novel: Knausgård recounts his life in such acute detail that memory can’t but have been aided by invention). This is a man with his masks thrown aside who, when we read him, allows us to look at ourselves more truthfully, and so forgive ourselves the disgrace of being born human.
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While Knausgård diehards await the final translated volume of My Struggle (it’s more fun to call it Mein Kampf, as the author well knows), we have this pleasingly oddball book to keep us sated. Home and Away is a series of “letters” (emails really) between Knausgård and a Swedish writer no one’s heard of by the name of Fredrik Ekelund, written over the course of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Ekelund flies to Rio for the tournament, whereas Karl Ove stays at home in his village on the coast of Sweden to mind the kids and run a publishing house. Both men are committed football fans. Ekelund turns out to be a likable, 60-year-old bon vivant, playing beach football and getting pissed on caipirinhas. Winningly earnest, he recalls how he spontaneously fell to his knees and kissed the runway on the first of his many visits to Brazil, in tribute to the great players who had captured his heart in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, Knausgård relishes portraying himself as a comically gloomy, introverted writer, “a Protestant deep into my bones”, squirming through the bare minimum of pleasantries with the neighbours so he can get back to his desk and suffer onto the page. Fredrik’s sunny letters awaken in him “a sense that it is too late, I have missed the bus, I have missed all the buses”.
The duo pick each match apart and articulate their personal footballing philosophies: the “Dionysian” Fredrik adores flair and the Brazilian jogo bonito, while Karl Ove favours cynicism, doggedness, and the Protestant determination to triumph no matter how boringly.
They talk of players past and present: both revere Diego Maradona to the far side of idolatry. Karl Ove admires Andrea Pirlo (“the greatest player since Zidane”) but is left cold by Lionel Messi. They sing the praises of Luis Suárez, until he abruptly bites an Italian player’s shoulder and is sent home in disgrace. Brazil’s nationally traumatic 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the semi-finals is treated with appropriate gravitas (“A historic meltdown on every level”). It is noted that the tournament features players named Borges, Kafka and Dante.
The correspondents recount forgettable matches in skimmable detail. During a particularly exhaustive account of a 1-0 German victory over Algeria, even superfans may find themselves asking that age-old question of literature: why am I reading this?
‘Totalitarian middle-class culture’
Like any good conversation, though, the footie banter expands to include many other topics, including globalisation, literature, family, the contemporary drift towards fascism, misogyny and the writing life. Knausgård, an expatriated Norwegian, has a go at “Swedish totalitarian middle-class culture”, and feels all the better for it.
Both authors describe their surroundings and activities in as much detail as the football. Fredrik’s colourful evocations of Brazil are enlivening, while Karl Ove’s grimly dutiful, stay-at-home-dad lifestyle is mostly engaging and sometimes funny.
This being summer 2014, historic events emerge in the background as the World Cup final approaches: the Russian annexation of Crimea; the emergence of Islamic State (“Late last night I read that they have proclaimed a new Caliphate”).
Home and Away is by turns trite, interesting, funny, embarrassing, boring and stimulating. As such, it’s not unlike My Struggle, and thus not unlike life. It will certainly appeal to the football fiend who will read any old toss relating to his beloved sport. It’s also characteristically personal, with the glum Norwegian Protestant living up to what may as well be his writerly motto: This will be embarrassing, but so be it.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is This Is the Ritual