Review: Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, By Nicholas Lezard

The funny side of being down and out

The mild-mannered comedy of errors is a quintessentially English literary gem. Perfected by P G Wodehouse, the genre marries the national propensity for social embarrassment with the determination to laugh at life's vicissitudes. When this takes the form of the non-fictional confessional, thousands of Brits rub their hands with glee. It's not through schadenfreude so much as an overwhelming sympathy harnessed to a "there but for the grace of circumstance go I" relief.

Nicholas Lezard's book is based on the first 90 of his New Statesman columns on being ejected unceremoniously from the family home and forced by penury to live the life of a student in a grubby shared house known affectionately as The Hovel. Lezard combines self deprecation with that spirit of irreverence and pride in rule-breaking familiar to those of us who grew up in, or shortly after, the punk years.

There are belly laughs on every page. Whether it's his naivety in honestly answering a girlfriend's question about whether he'd fancy her if she were heavier; his hints about his flatmate Razor's colourful love life ("a matter of being obliged, strongly against his will, to pay for a dinner, the details of which it is best to pass over in silence"), or the infestation of mice, Lezard's conversational tone and wit brighten up every domestic situation. Will Self makes a couple of cameos, and teaches Lezard how to wipe a table ("'You don't just dab at the visible stuff', he said slowly and clearly").

Beneath the droll levity, though, there are moments of misery to melt the stoniest heart. Lezard doesn't dwell on them – he has the Englishman's fear of being self-indulgent. If this were a book by a Frenchman in a similar domestic situation, it would undoubtedly be a pitiful lament on the existential and transitory nature of love and life. But who could fail to be moved by Lezard's comment that for the first three months of separation he cried in bed most of the time, or by his account of being dumped by his girlfriend? And there are sad and wise observations, such as "you can't make anyone love you back", and a tear-jerking paragraph, written during his single phase, on how precious it must be to be loved.

Well, his New Statesman readers love him, and many more will too, on reading this hilarious book.


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