Home And Away: Writing The Beautiful Game

Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund

Harvill Secker, £18.99

Reviewed by Hugh MacDonald

THE intellectualisation of football has gathered all the pace of Cristiano Ronaldo running downhill with a Barca-supporting lion in pursuit. Once football was greeted with condescension as the working man’s ballet. Now it threatens to eat the world with the voracity of that Barca-supporting lion. It attracts billions in sponsorship, is the target of the emerging Chinese entrepreneurs and sustains media, from front to back page, from morning to night on screen.

More intriguingly, it has become a subject for dissection among writers and artists. This may always have been the case but if so, these discussions were held in whispers. A passion for football was for intellectuals the love that dare not speak its name.

It is, of course, all different now. It is not unusual for a writer to make a self-deprecating reference to football as he discusses the enervating pressing game of post-modernism or the desperate midfield battle that is plot development.

This, too, is both a good and bad thing. An oeuvre of two halves, if you will, though you probably won’t. The intellectual football book can be intriguing, even provocative. It can also be so pretentious and insubstantial that one is tempted to buy a baseball bat and treat it in the manner of an over-ripe pumpkin.

The pre-match prospects for Home And Away would normally raise some concerns. The form is a series of letters from Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian famous for his My Struggle novels, with Fredrick Ekelund, a Swedish novelist and playwright. They take place against the background of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Ekelund is in Brazil, attends some of the matches. Knausgaard is at home, fitting in the football as he tries to write, tend to a family and deal with the demands of his increasing fame.

There is ample room, then, for pretentiousness to flourish, for the egos to stretch and overwhelm, for the chat to become so up its own bahookie that it can only be found with the aid of a proctologist. And it must be said that there are moments when all of the above apply.

But Ekelund and Knausgaard triumph for a variety of reasons. The first, and most insignificant, is that they are both authentic football fans so the book resounds with the prejudiced opinions that are necessary accessories of the breed. They rattle through the group games and knockout stage with an unrelenting energy and wit, never afraid to disagree or to say something outlandish.

Indeed, any collection of good football writing must include Ekelund’s description of watching the host nation’s 7-1 defeat to Germany in a Brazilian home. It deftly but brilliantly exposes just how brutal this result was to the Brazilian psyche but he sets it against a genuine human tragedy.

It is writing of the highest order in a book that is replete with it. This is one of the genuine reasons for the triumph of Home And Away but there are others. The contrast between Ekelund and Knausgaard is both stark and conducive to providing constantly stimulating exchanges. The Swede can be casually, even brutally, honest about his life. His past with severe psychological distress is made all the more powerful by his cool appraisal of it. His testimony of the personal fallout of his attraction and subsequent marriage to the woman next door, the wife of a friend, does not pander to any callow necessity for happy endings.

Knausgaard, in contrast, is easily recognisable to those who have followed the My Struggle series. He immerses himself in the details of his life, flicking to the football and then to other matters from the usefulness of trampolines to the restorative power of art. And there is a lot of discussion about death. Knausgaard, of course, could bring death into a conversation about the merits of different varieties of tomato sauce but his preoccupation sits easily in a book that bristles with life.

As Ekelund travels around Brazil, wonderfully conjuring up the scenes in Rio and generally making merry, Knausgaard broods at home, caring for four kids and his wife.

They play off each other to sometimes extraordinary effect. A discussion about a match can veer off suddenly into an examination of Scandinavian culture or the future of the novel itself. The mixture of the personal revelation and the more universal observation can be captivating, particularly as the intimacy grows between the writers as the World Cup draws to its close.

A Knausgaard riff on religion is one of the highlights and it segues powerfully into this: “The technology we have now means that human foolishness, which was previously private and was seen by one or 20 people who happened to be there, and human smallness, which was bound by time and place, are everywhere, and what has been lost, and no-one wants back, is grandness and dignity.”

There will be those who wonder what all this has to do with the World Cup of 2014. There will be those, too, who might sniff that the intellectualisation of football has taken a step too far.

But Ekelund and Knausgaard sidestep these issues as if they were Ronaldo against merely plodding defenders. The writers cannot be contained. Their interplay is constantly compelling. They have created a beautiful game of their own.