- Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game
- Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund, translated by Don Bartlett and Sean Kinsella
- Knopf Canada
Here's the thing about soccer writing: Nick Hornby ruined everything. Hornby's Fever Pitch, first published in 1992, became genre-defining. His charming, lyrical style and self-deprecating defence of sports fandom came to determine what publishers wanted. They got it, too, and along came a stream of first-rate books about the culture of soccer, its allure and social meaning. Mind you, much of it was anchored in Hornby-esque boyish enthusiasm and, often, drenched in sentimentality. Seriousness, provocative arguments and blunt insight got pushed aside.
Eventually, we all had to turn back to the great Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow for crackling, startling perspectives on the game. A clear-eyed, wry intellectual, Galeano saw soccer in both small personal terms and as part of the great wheel of the world's history. As it should be seen – local and international, micro and macro.
Now, along comes this odd, long, epistolary work by two serious men, both good writers, one a Norwegian, the other a Swede. Karl Ove Knausgaard's name is in large type on the cover because he's the best known, the author of the six-volume international cult hit My Struggle, a chronicle, largely plotless, of episodes from Knausgaard's life. He writes about the mundane with a manic intensity for figuring out why we go on and on, living in the mundane.
Ekelund is a more eclectic literary figure. He's written 16 books, from crime novels to collections of poetry, and three books about sport. He's also a playwright and a documentary filmmaker. He is, as you might guess, the fun guy in the duo.
The set-up for Home and Away is pretty simple. For the duration of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Knausgaard is at home. He lives in Sweden now and he goes about his business of promoting his books, writing essays for newspapers, taking care of his kids and watching the World Cup on TV. Ekelund is in Brazil, mainly in Rio de Janeiro, a place he has visited many times and loves passionately. He, too, watches most of the World Cup on TV (he only attends one game, at the famous Maracana stadium in Rio), but in the bars, cafés and cantinas of urban Brazil, where the interest is intense. They send lengthy e-mails to each other – they are always called "letters" in the book – that debate the merits of teams and tactics, agonize over goals scored or missed opportunities. Both are soccer fanatics with encyclopedic knowledge of previous World Cup tournaments.
It takes a few lengthy e-mails to get a rhythm going. Ekelund is ecstatic to be in Rio. He plays soccer on the beach, drinks beer in beachside shacks and soaks in the beauty of the city. (I was in Rio for a month during the 2014 World Cup and can picture almost everything he enthuses about. He's a good, vivid writer.) He is, like every local, expecting Brazil's team to march through the tournament to a glorious victory in the final. That march went awry and that is really the spine of the book.
The meat of material about soccer as a way of understanding the human spirit and the twists of history comes from Knausgaard. He favours soccer matches that are tactically clever even if they result in a 0-0 draw. He is drawn to the cynicism of the traditional Italian style of play: all careful, crafty control of the space on the field and determined protection of a one-goal lead. He worships Andrea Pirlo, the great Italian midfielder who made ownership of the midfield seem effortless.
In one long letter to Ekelund, he speculates that his admiration for Italy is connected to his sense of self-worth. He argues that what he has always wanted is to appear to the world as a stylish man, clever, self-aware and having all his achievements seem effortless, born out of inherent skill. That's what Italy represents to him. A way of life. Apparently, if he could be anyone in the world, he would be Pirlo. This is not an eccentric view. It's a clever insight into the way every soccer fan, but especially literary men, project meaning onto the efforts of certain great players who merely move a round ball around a green field, for a living or for their country.
The book reaches a climax, after many, many digressions about Knausgaard's four children and the trampoline he's bought for them, and Ekelund's blow-by-blow accounts of pickup soccer he plays with poets and musicians in Rio, with Brazil defeated 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-final. Ekelund is stunned, stung and, it seems, near tears. Knausgaard writes little about it. He never was much of a fan of Brazil and the swaggering, self-destructive style of its play only made him long for the guile of Italy or Argentina. At one point, Knausgaard writes to his friend, "You are a romantic. I, on the other hand, am a Protestant deep into my bones. Brazil is not for me, nor is Brazilian life." Neither of the two writers has much time or admiration for Germany, the eventual Word Cup champions.
What this sprawling, digressive and absorbing book amounts to is a series of conversations between a thoughtful, careful man – Knausgaard – who is unapologetically bookish, and a man who is an enthusiast and a hedonist: Ekelund. Both are correct about some aspects of soccer, both are wrong about other elements of the game. But in their arguments are genuinely fresh, sometimes ferociously shrewd observations about the game. The observations are those of grown-ups. Not boyish at all and it is no struggle for a soccer fan to revel in them.
John Doyle is The Globe's TV critic, has covered numerous soccer tournaments and is the author of The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer.