by Chris Mikul
Look, you don’t have to read this book if you don’t want to. You could put it on the table over there and forget all about it. You could ‘accidentally’ let it fall behind a chest of drawers and not find it again until you move house years from now. You could even throw it out the window, and it need never trouble your dreams. I won’t mind. It’s entirely up to you.
What’s that? You’re still here? Well, okay, if you’re sure . . .
As you have probably gathered by now, Doctor Arnoldi is a very strange book, and its author, Tiffany Thayer, was a very strange man. He was born in Illinois in 1902, the son of actors, and became an actor as well, having some success as a juvenile lead in a Civil War play called The Coward. While his acting career eventually petered out, with his last role a comic turn in an obscure 1936 film, The Devil on Horseback, there remained something of the actor, something flamboyant and larger-than-life, in everything he did.
In the 1920s Thayer worked as a reporter on the Chicago Tribune, where he met Ben Hecht, who would become a friend and literary mentor. He landed in New York in 1926, and started writing fiction. He wrote crime stories for the pulps, and in 1930 brought forth a novel called Thirteen Men. It told the stories of twelve men whose lives converge when they become jurors at the trial of a thirteenth, a mass murderer. It was bold, vividly imagined, strikingly original and sexually frank (a hallmark of all Thayer’s works), and it became a book that ‘everyone’ read. Thayer’s literary career was off to a good start.
A man of prodigious energy, Thayer spent the rest of the 30s turning out big, splashy, often risqué novels which saw him dubbed ‘the bad boy of American letters’. Call Her Savage (1930), about a half-white, half-native American girl with a fiery temper and a problem with men, was probably his biggest hit after Thirteen Men. (It was filmed with Clara Bow in the lead role.) Thirteen Women (1932) is a tense crime story about a group of women terrorised by a fellow pupil at their former school. One Woman (1933) chronicles the adventures of a reporter trying to reconstruct a dead woman’s life from the names and numbers in her pocket book. An American Girl (1933), a farce involving a fictional European kingdom and a Hollywood film crew, was one of him most notorious works thanks to its orgy scene (with monkeys!). And One-Man Show is an intriguing fantasy about a man who acquires great artistic talent after nearly being killed in a car accident. Some critics praised Thayer for the vigour of his writing and ability to delineate character (he received particular praise for his female characters). But most pilloried him for the sexual content of his books, calling him crude and coarse. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of how “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries”. Thayer, who saw himself as working in the cheerfully uninhibited tradition of Rabelais, ignored such criticism. “I can’t help myself,” he said. “I am incorrigible.”
Thayer moved to California in the 30s to try and break into screenwriting, but had little success. By the end of the decade, tired of Hollywood and, it seemed, of novel writing as well, he had returned to New York. He made good money working for an advertising agency, and directed most of his energies to the Fortean Society, which he had founded in 1931. This promoted the writings and ideas of Charles Fort (1874-1932), a pioneering compiler of anomalous phenomena—strange lights on the sky, mysterious appearances and disappearances, rains of frogs and other creatures—anything for which science did not have a ready explanation. From 1937 onwards, Thayer published a Fortean Society journal, called Doubt from the third issue, in which he printed Fort’s unpublished notes on strange happenings. But the magazine’s real purpose was to give Thayer an outlet for his own crankish views. A born contrarian, he railed against numerous aspects of society, denouncing vaccination, nuclear power, airplanes, you name it.
And he was secretly writing a novel, too, but not just any novel. Thayer intended Mona Lisa, which was set in sixteenth century Italy, to be the longest novel ever written. The final manuscript – all handwritten – clocked at 46,000 pages. The first three volumes appeared as Mona Lisa 1: The Prince of Taranto in 1956, but alas, Thayer’s readers had slipped away by then, and the book was a flop. He was trying to cut the remainder down to more manageable size when he died of a heart attack in 1959.
Thayer never wrote the same book twice, and as well as the novels from the 30s described above there were others, even more unconventional, that were never going to trouble the bestseller lists. The Greek (1932), for example, is a staggeringly egotistical production in which Tiffany Thayer—he’s the book’s narrator—helps a Greek aristocrat become the emperor of the USA, then, as his attorney general, reshapes the country to his own liking (legalising polygamy and pornography, but banning books on the grounds that people want things more if they’re banned). Kings and Numbers (1934) is even odder, a collection of anecdotes about the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles and his descendants which is simply puzzling.
Then there’s Doctor Arnoldi, which is unlike anything else Thayer ever wrote. But then, it’s unlike anything else anyone ever wrote.
Thayer got the idea for Doctor Arnoldi after reading the Russian writer Mikhail Artsybashev’s 1913 novel Breaking-Point, and indeed lifted his title character straight from it. In Artsybashev’s book, Arnoldi is an ageing, overweight, world-weary doctor who lives in a small town in Siberia. At night, its young men gather at a club to drink vodka, squabble over women and complain about how little there is to do in the town. They look up to Arnoldi as a wise father figure, but when they ask him questions about weighty philosophical issues, his usual reply is “I don’t know.”
Breaking-Point is a book steeped in death. Two of Arnoldi’s patients, an elderly professor and a faded actress, die protracted, agonising deaths. Meanwhile, an engineer named Naumoff argues to anyone who will listen that life is futile, happiness an illusion, and the only reasonable response to it all is to kill oneself. The philosophy of ‘Naumoffism’ is hotly debated by the others, and even more so when six men and women of the town commit suicide in rapid succession.
Near the end of the book, a student named Tchish is discussing these events with Dr. Arnoldi. Tchish has always been one of the fiercest critics of Naumoffism. He is an ardent socialist who dreams of the revolution, when the working class will rise up and there will be happiness for all. Arnoldi is predictably dismissive of such ideas.
Dr. Arnoldi sighed. “Oh, you’ll get tired of that, too, one day.”
“You’re an awful pessimist, Doctor! Really, you’re worse than Naumoff,” he cried.
“Then why don’t you shoot yourself, Doctor?” sneered the little student.
Again the doctor fixed his small, expressionless eyes on him. After a time, he answered:
“Why should I shoot myself? I’ve been dead for a long time as it is!”
Tchish started. A strange chill floated through his soul. At the moment he really experienced a dream-like sensation of sitting and conversing with a dead man.
Later, Tchish is in his room, pondering their conversation.
Dr. Arnoldi was right: he had been dead a long time although he went about and spoke. At least he recognised he was dead. Whereas thousands and thousands move about the globe, like worms on a carcase, and never know that they are walking corpses whom someone has let loose in the world in malicious irony till at last they are really shovelled into the grave.
I am sure that when Thayer read that paragraph, a little spark flashed in his brain. It set off other sparks, and they spread and flashed into a vast and awful vision which he knew he would have to get onto paper. And so he set about the task with his usual gusto, transporting the lugubrious doctor from the Steppes of Russia to the tenements of New York, and fleshing out the nightmarish vision in grim, relentless detail.
Doctor Arnoldi generally horrified reviewers. It was never reprinted and virtually disappeared without trace, so that the original edition is today extremely scarce. But, like a mutilated corpse that won’t lie down, here it is again. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you’re up for it, you’re in for quite a ride.