Literary friendships can be odd, edgy, rivalrous things, even when the individuals concerned are distinct enough to give some comfortable distance. When he was university librarian at Hull, embracing ‘the toad work’ rather than glad-handing it on the literary circuit, Philip Larkin was so appalled by the news that the rakish, leather-jacketed Ted Hughes was coming to campus and charging £10 to have dinner in his presence that he went around scrawling something like ‘Or meet PL for sixpence and sandwiches’ across Hughes’s promotional flyers. Hughes had always thought they were friends. Then he read Larkin’s letters (sample quote: ‘Ted’s no good at all. Not at all. Not a single solitary bit of good’).
Sometimes, though, the balance is just right. The basis of Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game is a literary friendship entwined around football and given form in a prolific exchange of letters during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The title refers to both the geographical locations and the contrasting characters of the letter writers, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund.
Knausgaard is the Norwegian author of a hugely successful six-part series of autobiographical novels called My Struggle. Ekelund is a Swedish writer and academic. Knausgaard is the home party. He watches the World Cup from the family sofa in Norway, constantly exhausted by the drudgery of parenthood. Ekelund is the away one. He travels, he has experiences, he watches the World Cup from the streets of Rio itself. ‘I desire reality, intensity, life,’ he points out early on.
They’re both pictured on the dust jacket. One is handsome and lean, hair swept back, a look of destiny in his eyes. The other is chubby-faced, beaming gamely beneath a muddle of curls. Can you guess which is which? Wrong! Ekelund, the away man, is the baby-faced dork. Home boy Knausgaard has the steely glint. On the page, though, they’re both perfectly in character. And for a while, as the letters cross, the scene is set and the tournament begins, their interplay takes on the familiar cut and thrust of a football match.
On the first page Ekelund is already firing up the outboard motor and piloting this book into uncharted footballing waters. ‘To sit at the feet of Foucault and Derrida only served to intensify the intellectual high I was living,’ he reminisces of his time in Paris, before recalling his first ever visit to Brazil: ‘I knelt and kissed the ground.’ Yep. It’s a bit like that round here.
‘At about the time you got off the plane in Rio de Janeiro I was at a parents’ get-together for my eldest daughter’s class,’ Karl Ove replies, deadpan. And so he goes on: ‘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.’
Not so Ekelund, who carries on dancing, drinking, meeting transvestites and mixing with the world in Botafogo as the book settles down into something quite lovely, an entirely engrossing exchange of ideas, affection and memory. At times, the football can seem a little tacked on, as football talk often is. At others, the thrill of the book lies in finding the mundane nuts and bolts of football, family, travel and childhood drenched in the full glare of literary intellect.
Ekelund’s best bits are probably the descriptions of actually playing football in Brazil, scratch contests and beach matches in which he captures the pure excitement, the intense collectivism of losing yourself in the game. He’s also good on being a fan, the feeling at every World Cup that there are the winners and, behind them, the real winners whom we actually remember: the Hungary of Ferenc Puskás at the 1954 World Cup, Johan Cruyff’s great ‘Total Football’ Holland team, which ‘won our hearts’ before losing in the final to West Germany in 1974. ‘Two verbal moods confront each other here. The subjunctive (the world as it might be) and the indicative (the world as it is), and as we know, Germany are very good at indicative football.’
Both men are carried along on a wave of gathering excitement. Both are traumatised separately by Brazil’s climactic 7–1 defeat by Germany in Belo Horizonte. Later Knausgaard talks about the strange, self-contained suspension of time and events experienced when looking back at old football matches and football summers. He compares the feeling of remembering your old self, innocent of outcomes and final scores, with the current age, the experiences of modern Europe, the fear of future events. ‘What all the Jews in 1930s Germany shared, and other Germans too for that matter, was an ignorance of what was going to happen,’ he writes. The lads all giving it 110 per cent and being delighted with the result this ain’t.
Football books have had an up and down time over the last few years. The days when anything with half a chance of Hornbying itself was aggressively commissioned have long gone. The great crash came with a whole slew of big-money turkeys in the last decade. Ashley Cole’s autobiography, My Defence, drew a £250,000 advance and sold 4,000 copies in its first six weeks. But there has been a creative resurgence in recent years, even a mini golden age in football writing, with real freedom in form and style and some great stories dug out from under the fingernail. This is a book from that same recent tradition. It really shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Perhaps in its wake the egghead footballing-epistle genre can finally thrive, spawning its own subculture of imitators – Jonathan Meades and Mary Beard talking about the Johnstone Paint Trophy, and so on. More likely, Home and Away will simply stand on its own, a genuinely unusual, genuinely engaging two-hander of real affection and insight.