The Professor of Aesthetics

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE PROFESSOR OF AESTHETICS is an entirely original book which nevertheless puts one forcibly in mind of the claustrophobic sensibilities of Edgar Allan Poe’s characters, the dark naturalistic visions of lower class life in Emile Zola’s novels, the erudite decadence of Oscar Wilde’s dissolute but charming young men, and the secular hell of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential drama, not to mention the running allusion in the novel itself to Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY.

Alternating between the homey vernacular of Justus Bechner, a boarder at the Farrell’s boarding house in the resort town of Christina and the poetic Victorian voice of an omniscient narrator, who fills in the past lives of the three major characters, a story of Dickensian squalor and perhaps frighteningly commonplace injustice unfolds.

Into the life of a brother and sister comes an enigmatic and alluring stranger, Jay Skikey, Professor of Aesthetics, or so his card announces him. What follows is a recitations of three powerfully individual and painful life histories: the loneliness of a bored and unfulfilled spinster in a small town of petty interests and intrigues; the torments of a man who saw and certainly felt too much on the battlefields and in the cafes of France in World War I; and the peculiar stunted growth of an orphan who meets with physical and psychological abuse of such proportions that he can only spend the rest of his life acting out his hatreds and resentments in ever more refined forms of cruelty. When spinster, serviceman, and evil incarnate come together for a few brief weeks under the clever scrutiny of the town mortician, Callan McAlpern, and the innocent eye of the unreliable narrator and boarder, Justus Bechner, the reader is treated to a many-faceted view of what amounts to a psychic nuclear meltdown. This book is so very dark that it is illuminating.