Home and Away by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund
Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund’s Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game is a mesmerizing correspondence about the World Cup in 2014 that quickly grows into a text about so much more than football. Together, Knausgaard and Ekelund use football to expound on trends in international sociology, politics, and literature, all while remaining an intimate discussion between two friends. Letters arrive like “an avalanche of football, everyday life, happiness, excitement and sorrow, which are collective, which belong to everyone.” Their mutual admiration for each other’s work results in a beautifully supportive book about how people can find common emotional ground, half a world away.
Knausgaard rose to international literary stardom with the 2012 English-language translation of the first volume of My Struggle. Conjuring distant but vivid memories as fresh as still-wet paint, he revolutionized the contemporary autobiographical novel and in six volumes has garnered praise that’s typically reserved for classics like Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In 2010, he founded a publishing house called Pelikanen, a not-for-profit not unlike the Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books that debuted My Struggle. Home and Away was originally published by Pelikanen and does feel at times like a vanity project, but fans of My Struggle will have no problem indulging in Knausgaard’s and Ekelund’s correspondence. While about a third of the book consists of post-match play-by-plays, there’s so much greatness in the margins of their sports-talk that non-football aficionados will find this a rewarding read.
The Swedish Ekelund is the author of over twenty novels, plays and books of poetry and will likely be a new name for English-language readers, but Home and Away proves to be a great debut. In the book, Knausgaard stays at home with his four children and wife while Ekelund travels to Brazil to experience the Cup first hand, and they plan to email each other daily. Ekelund’s dispatches are an inspired travelogue and his passion for life and compassion for his fellow man and sports fan create a transportive tableau. Ekelund’s feet on the ground are a fascinating foil to Knausgaard’s feet up on his desk, as he tries to write between adorably recounted family responsibilities. When Ekelund writes of his life-affirming all-night outings, Knausgaard confesses he dozed off during the game and missed most of the excitement.
Similar to My Struggle (or Min Kamp, as it’s referred to throughout Home and Away), the men get philosophical and can’t help but unabashedly analyze society. They touch on something astonishingly profound about casual racism in sports and how noticeable the sentiment is when organized sports graduate from domestic league competitions to international face-offs. It’s with a forgivable kind of hate when New Yorkers pick on Boston, but what happens when Italy faces off against Uruguay, and you’re rooting for Uruguay? Suddenly, the Italian team becomes all of Italy, and stereotypes begin to stir. And what about when Luis Suarez, the striker from Uruguay, famously bit his opponent during the game? Viewers who don’t know anything substantive about Uruguay now have something: they’re the country that has the team that bites people. It’s a complicated struggle to objectively navigate the teams while they match up in the world’s arena, and it’s fascinating to watch as Ekelund and Knausgaard both sense themselves falling into these problematic habits.
The geopolitical subtext of Home and Away grows more prevalent as the book unfolds, but Knausgaard takes things a step further and discusses a particularly troubling first-hand experience with an us-vs-them attitude. In “a long letter about Swedish feminism,” Knausgaard recounts a recent book event where he found himself cornered with accusations of misogyny in My Struggle, an incident that blindsided him enough to devote multiple letters here to the scene. “It isn’t ‘men’ who hate women, there is a group of men….” Knausgaard explains. “It is a social problem….But I don’t want to be drawn into this. I am not an accessory to the crime because they are men and I am also a man.” Readers of My Struggle will recognize this sentiment as a quintessential Knausgaardian dilemma (how to be a good man) but those new to Knausgaard will find these heady jags into and out of the world of feminism to be fairly uncomfortable, particularly so in a book that, on its surface, is one of men talking about sports.
Still, the honesty of Home and Away is a marvel and it’s remarkable how cohesive the book is considering it’s penned by two authors. Together, Knausgaard and Ekelund seamlessly shed the confines of sports-writing and, in spectacular tandem, build a book together that philosophically challenges the threshold between the self and the other.