A rather unexpected treat, this, a THIRD1 2016 publication by my favourite non-dead male writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, which I had absolutely no idea was coming, and nor did any of my Knausgaard-liking friends. Bad marketing, but, hey, I bought it anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
Home and Away (subtitled Writing the Beautiful Game) is a fucking odd book, containing nothing but letters written between Knausgaard and a friend of his, the (then) 60 yo Swedish writer Fredrik Ekelund. They discuss lots of things as asides to their main thrust, which is a day by day account of the 2014 football World Cup, which happened in Brazil. Ekelund is over in South America, hanging out in Rio where he dances on the sand, while Knausgaard remains in Sweden, in the countryside near Ystad, writing, working and looking after his many, many, children. Each likes a different style of football, and though the book attempts to set up a deep dichotomy between the two men, in reality they are incredibly similar. For example: Knausgaard doesn’t exercise and has a serious smoking addiction, while Ekelund is more active but is boozing most nights.
Knausgaard and Ekelund are both heterosexual white men who’ve achieved success in the world of Scandi literature, they’ve both had more than one marriage, they both have children, they both like football, they share thematic preoccupations, they both acknowledge the self-indulgence of the book they’re writing, and they both (especially – #heartbroken – Knausgaard) write some worryingly dismissive things about the reality of privilege/discrimination: these men are more alike than they are dissimilar. Is this a problem? I don’t think so, tbh. I don’t think the main flaw within Home and Away is structural, or its niche idea; its serious and deeply problematic flaw is the unthought-through response Knausgaard has to an aggressive and critical feminist reading of Min Kamp. But let’s get to that later. I need to take my contact lenses out.
It always gives the later evening a new lease of life, freeing the eyeballs. Yum. To continue:
I don’t give a shit about football. Actually, that sounds too extreme. I don’t hate it, I don’t dislike it even, I just don’t care about it. I’ve been to a football game once and did enjoy it, but I’ve made no efforts to repeat the experience. I intend to at some point, maybe this Christmas. I probably should, my dad would enjoy going with me again.
ANYWAY: I read a phenomenal book about football in the Spring (Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint), a book that is more ambitious and much shorter than this, and far more successful for both those reasons. Home and Away is, alas, a bit mundane. Of the 412 pages, the vast majority are quite specifically about football. Some are descriptions of the 2014 games the men are watching, some are reminiscences of old games, old players, old squads, some is analysis of current performances, the teams, the techniques, the players, the managers. As a literary book about football, Home and Away is far more about football than Toussaint’s Football, but it is where it veers away from technical analysis that it lifts. The way different countries approach football and supporting football is dealt with in an interesting way, as too are the different ways in which people encounter the sport. Ekelund is in Brazil, watching games in bars, a stadium, on big screens on beaches, in the sick room of a friend’s mother in a hospice: always surrounded by people. Knausgaard watches most of the games alone, sometimes with his wife, sometimes with his children, but he enjoys talking about the tournament with other people whenever he can. And when I say “people”, I do mean people rather than “men”. This is a pertinent point, because neither Ekelund nor Knausgaard think of or dramatise football as an especially male interest. Both of them watch games with women, talk to women who played the sport as children and teenagers (it is only males who seem to continue playing it as adults, though), and they both encounter female athletes and female professionals with whom there is no tone of difference, and w/r/t childcare Knausgaard is very involved. He, for example, sleeps in a room with his infant daughter, Anne, so that it is only ever he, rather than his wife, who is woken up in the night by the baby. Knausgaard is neither resentful nor boastful of this: his wife requires more sleep than he does for her personal wellbeing, and he therefore changes his behaviour to help her. This is, essentially, a feminist act. But don’t you dare tell Knausgaard that, because he is an entrenched enemy of the Swedish feminist movement.
Knausgaard launches into a two page defence of the archetypal #notallmen type on two occasions in this text, which was heartbreaking for me. Yes, there is more equality between genders than there used to be, but the world isn’t perfect, Karl, and dismissing narratives that clarify the very real fact that male culture causes violence – including sexual violence – towards women is ignorant. No, Karl, no one is accusing you of raping or attacking women when they say that this is a problem with men generally, because it is, and when you refuse to engage with this as a problem, particularly as a prominent male thinker – which you are – you evidence the position of privilege Swedish feminists are accusing you of possessing. Thankfully, the final volume of Min Kamp was written before Knausgaard and Swedish feminists fell out, so hopefully these 2014 rants won’t appear in his earlier, more acclaimed, volume. There’s that adage about never meeting (or is it fucking?) your heroes, and I always kinda thought I’d met Knausgaard due to the “open” nature of Min Kamp. I’d found nothing unforgivable there. However, there are a few passages in here which are, I think, in 2016, unforgivable. And, yes, they would have been in 2014, too, when this was published in Scandi. “Diminishment of privilege is not discrimination”, as I type on the internet to someone most days.
I’ve wandered off topic, to the detriment of this blog (three days w/o drinking, this is always the hardest bit whenever I go cold turkey, mind is everywhere, body confused, swinging between great energy and great lethargy, lots of dizziness and nausea, usually mild hallucinations, though not yet today, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw something that wasn’t real when I take my dog for his daily end-of-the-night shitwalk shortly), while the opposite cannot be said of Home and Away. When Knausgaard and Ekelund write of nature, of family, of love, of death, of life as a literary figure, of their careers, of travel, of youth, of ageing, of fatherhood, of depression, of confidence, of fate, of themselves, this book is great. Ekelund – whose work I don’t believe has appeared in English before – comes across well, a happy, hard-working individual, and other than when he’s typing like a Trump supporter with an erection, Knausgaard also seems caring, thoughtful and generous. There is a real rapport, a clear friendship, between the two men, and this book offers beautiful imagery, as well as some moving passages and a few very, very big laughs, especially the extended section where the prudish Knausgaard accidentally takes his children to a nudist beach.
The football matches are written with energy and excitement, but for me there was just a little too much football for this to be a book I could truly love. Knausgaard rightly thinks the 90s band Oasis are shit, which was an aside that pleased me, and the descriptions of Brazil and Ekelund’s other travels in South America emphasised to me why I always imagine myself living on that continent, should I ever grow up enough to start a life.
Home and Away is a strange book, and one trading off Knausgaard’s reputation. It’s a risky thing to do, a unique idea, and – for me – it achieved what it set out to do, though that central idea wasn’t particularly exciting imo. I’d like to speak to a football fan who’s also read it and all of Min Kamp, but that’s fucking unlikely to happen. I speak more words to my dog than human people most days.
If you want a literary book about football that’s not just about football, get the Toussaint. If you like Knausgaard and genuinely like football, go for this. Actually, the Toussaint is more than just a book about football. Everyone should read that one. Home and Away not so much.
It’s fine, but there’s a direct competitor and that one’s great.