“Home and Away,” a new book of correspondence between authors Karl Ove Knausgaard of Norway and Fredrik Ekelund of Sweden during the 2014 World Cup, is a captivating tribute to soccer.
‘Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game’
by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $16
Soccer fans will love “Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game,” perhaps persuaded by the title alone. My mission, then, is to exhort readers less familiar with the sport to try this captivating and even profound book by two writers at the top of their game.
Karl Ove Knausgaard of Norway, author of the acclaimed “My Struggle” novels, and Fredrik Ekelund from Sweden, wrote dozens of letters to each other during the 2014 World Cup tournament, sharing vivid accounts and observations about the games, but also about their rich and varied personal lives.
Knausgaard is “home” in Sweden, tending to his career and family, including four preteen children, while watching World Cup games on TV. He likes low-scoring games, and his favorite teams are defensive-minded Argentina and Italy.
Ekelund is “away” in Rio de Janeiro, watching games live and in bars. He plays pickup soccer on the beach and revels in the Brazilian way of life, including their unique flair for o jogo bonito — Portuguese for “the beautiful game.” He likes ample goal scoring and creative offense. Lifelong soccer fans, the authors each write from a passionate fan’s point of view, often describing the same match with wildly differing opinions.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
This book spoke to me as a soccer player and fan, highlighting in sublime detail the players and plays from a dramatic tournament, most remembered for Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez biting an opponent in the shoulder, and the historic 7-1 German humiliation of host country Brazil in the semifinals.
Both authors have a knack for metaphor and apply it liberally to their sports writing. “Germany were of course impressive, but so were the USA,” opines Ekelund, “and while watching it occurred to me that both teams play Protestant football, which is the antithesis of the Catholic diva football [Portuguese forward] Ronaldo represents.”
In an impassioned “debate” about Italy, Knausgaard rhapsodizes about the beauty, style and verve of Italian culture and soccer, while Ekelund disdains the country that produced Mussolini, Berlusconi and the Cosa Nostra.
On the topic of why soccer matters, Knausgaard is emphatic: “We don’t watch football to see perfection, balance, variation and clever positioning,” he writes in an oblique criticism of the vaunted German style of play. “We want to see frailty being overcome, we want to have a surprise factor, something impossible to predict, we want improvisation, stages, risk. In brief, we want to have life, unpredictability.”
Among the unexpected pleasures of the book is the power of letter writing to tell stories and deepen relationships. The two friends write intensely about the match of the day, then launch into fascinating musings that never seem off-topic or tangential because they are connected in the minds of the writers, who have revealing takes about, say, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe (with echoes of our recent presidential election) or improving economic conditions in the Third World or Swedish feminism.
After a few weeks of corresponding, the letters become increasingly personal. In one remarkable skein of thought introduced by Ekelund and taken up by Knausgaard, they explore the idea of how writing helps open up doors in their minds to a limitless and mysteriously interconnected interior world, where memory is mixed with the physical realm.
So yes, “Home and Away” is about soccer, but it is, unpredictably and delightfully, much more than that.