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The Uncivil Servant: Soccer, Literature, and Life

Mitchell Abidor
March 12, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund. FSG, 2017, 412 pages.

HOW ARE WE to classify Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund’s Home and Away? A collection of the correspondence of the two writers during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Swede Ekelund writing from Brazil, Knausgaard, the Norwegian, from his home in Sweden, it is presented as a soccer book: The cover has a golden soccer ball, and the book is subtitled “Writing the Beautiful Game.” But anyone looking for an analysis of the relative advantages of playing three in the back versus four would come away from it sorely disappointed. The framework of soccer and the World Cup serves as a pretext for the two men to reflect on the games; on sport and its higher significance; on the writing life; and also on their lives as men, as fathers, as husbands, and as sons.

There is an unquestionable loose charm in a book in which, in one letter, Knausgaard can move from discussing how Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus were the novels that best explained the two world wars, to the joys of being in ugly Malmö as opposed to beautiful Stockholm, to the surprising number of “diminutive” players making important contributions to the 2014 World Cup. The two writers feel absolutely free to tell each other anything and everything.

Telling anything and everything is the essence of Knausgaard’s art. Author of the six-volume autobiographical My Struggle (the provocation of the title is somewhat lost in English; the Norwegian is Min Kamp), he gives in this masterpiece an exhaustive account of moments in his life, particularly his family life — his father’s descent into alcoholism and death, his own relations with his mother, his wives, his family — in detail that is either awe-inspiring or exhausting, depending on one’s point of view. The technical subject of how to maintain flow in the midst of all this detail is addressed in Home and Away, in one of the many side conversations that stray from soccer. Ekelund asks Knausgaard how he manages to “succeed in maintaining such a vivid story and prevent it from drowning in detail,” perhaps the key question for anyone reading My Struggle. It is, nevertheless, an odd question to appear in a book about soccer, but the answer returns to the sport, to, as Knausgaard says, "the odd phenomenon of 'being in form.'" He goes on, "It doesn’t only apply to football, it applies to all areas of life where you have to perform, also in writing. You can sit and toil away and nothing works, there is a block, there is no flow, just resistance, and the text is lifeless, stiff, artificial, jagged. Then all of a sudden it can loosed up. All of a sudden it flows. All of a sudden nothing is difficult, the text is alive, everything is possible."

True to form, Knausgaard’s contributions often center around his family: his chauffeuring of his daughters to play rehearsals, his baby’s sleep patterns, a humorous passage about taking his children to the beach only to discover it was occupied by nudists jealously guarding their terrain (Knausgaard confesses that "I am a puritan . . . not a bon viveur, but a life-denier"); as well as about the travails and travels of an author who has achieved international fame. Some of the latter result in cases of jetlag that cause him to fall asleep while trying to watch World Cup matches, the supposed reason for the book’s existence.

SOCCER is a tribal sport, and neither author is chary of their broad characterizations not of national characteristics but of national soccer characteristics, which Knausgaard divides into Protestant -- closed, defensive, soccer -- and free-flowing Catholic soccer (though the perfect representative of the former is Catholic Italy).

The tribalism extends to Knausgaard’s view of those around him. Describing in yet another digression his dealings with a neighbor of, shall we say, a different social class than his own, he realizes that “I lived in a bubble, surrounded by polite, well-meaning, literary-minded, politically orientated, sensible middle-class people who all have the same values, read the same books, watch the same TV series, think the same thoughts, and behave on the same ways. This ravaged, aggressive man stood outside all that. The universality readers of my books talk about had no validity for him.” Though he laments the “tyranny of the good” that has resulted in his being berated for perceived sins against women in his books, Knausgaard unabashedly prefers the company of those like him to “the ravaged man.” But he now knows that “the universality my books experience is valid only for a certain class, which is more or less similar everywhere in the world.”

If Kansugaard’s side excursions and contributions are almost always worth the read, the book is seriously marred by Fredrik Ekelund’s frequent encomia to the superiority of the Brazilian way of being, sections that could have easily been cut in this already abridged volume. Ekelund, a former Maoist, falls into trap of what is called in French “nostalgie de la boue,” nostalgia for the mud, the romanticizing of the poor. He tells us how superior Brazilian masculinity is, how their men dance in ways that are morally superior to those of Europe, that their emotions are more sincere than those of Europeans. Hogwash all, and the book would have been better without them. And perhaps no passage in the book is so insipid -- by which I mean so foolish -- as the report of a conversation between Ekelund and a couple of transplanted Swedes living in Rio. Drawing a totally unjustified conclusion about the meaning of seeing an 8o-year-old woman maneuvering a walker unaided in the snow of Stockholm as proof of the individualism rotting Sweden, the neo-Brazilian says that “an opposing view [to that of Northern Europe] has emerged lately, something else . . . A shift towards the south.” Then, quoting the artist and musician Brian Eno, we’re told that "it’s here the future lies, in Brazil’s way of being. Brazil has so much to teach us." "It’s here the future lies," eh? Didn’t Stefan Zweig, the Austrian exile who committed suicide in Brazil and who is mentioned several times, call his final book Brazil Land of the Future? In 1942!

Brazil, like its neighbor Argentine, will always be a country with great potential. Home and Away is seriously marred by the failure to see that Brazil, no more than any other country, is exceptional. Any exercise aimed at proving one country is inherently superior to another requires a fair amount of cherry-picking, of omitting stories that fail to fit the narrative. Perhaps an elderly Swedish woman had trouble maneuvering in the snow, but is the tale of the soccer goalkeeper Bruno, just recently, conceivable in Scandinavia? Bruno had the mother of his child murdered, chopped into pieces, and fed to a pack of Rottweilers. Released pending a new appeal after serving seven years, he is now being pursued by Brazilian soccer teams to return to playing. Brazil the land of the future? One can only hope not.

HOME AND AWAY ultimately revolves around soccer, and here it seldom disappoints. There’s the occasional silly reaching for significance that almost all intellectuals descend to when talking about sports they love, as when Knausgaard says that “the nature of football, which is that it appears and is concentrated in the here and now, and then it is gone, only to appear somewhere else.” There is nothing in life that this can’t be said about, and soccer is no more -- or less -- evanescent that a play, a film, a friendship, or the smell of the hair of the young woman on the elevator last week when she tossed it over her shoulder.

But Knausgaard’s affection for the Argentine Angel Di Maria because of his resemblance to Kafka is irresistible; and when the two describe national team characteristics, individual performances, or analyze games, often seeing the same game (e.g., the Germany-France semi-final) in completely different ways, or talk about their own shifting allegiances during the month of the tournament, the book truly takes wings. Soccer is then viewed and treated as what it most resembles: a work of art, the truth of which is unfindable and infinitely debatable.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.