Back in the '30s a teen-age student did a stint as elevator operator at Garrison Hall, the run-down Back Bay apartment hotel where Arthur Inman lived. He is still talking about it.

"All these years I bored my family out of their mind with these stories about this guy I worked for once. The greatest nebbish in the history of the world. Like a Howard Hughes. Spent all his time in a darkened room having people talk to him, girls, he'd make passes at them. The place was filthy, you couldn't breathe in there. Periodically you'd see the sheets out in front because he did it all in bed . . .

"And then the other Sunday in The Globe I opened the paper and there he was, staring out at me. I couldn't believe it."

With the soft, querulous voices that arise in the shocked silence after an explosion, people who knew Arthur Inman are beginning to talk about him. The man put a bullet through his head in 1963, leaving a local reputation as a hypochondriac recluse, a long-suffering wife, some perfectly awful poetry and a 44-year diary that ran to 17 million words.

After all these years, Arthur Inman is famous.

Not only is his work being read more widely than even the publisher dreamed, but he has become a national celebrity of sorts, as "that weird guy in the darkened room."

This fall the diary was published by Harvard University Press, reduced to a mere 1,661 pages in two volumes, less than a tenth of the original. For more than six years, the editor, historian Daniel Aaron, had lived with the truckload of notebooks filled with a virtually unreadable pencil scrawl and ream upon ream of typescript, the corrected version that Inman had hoped would bring him immortality:

I sometimes reflect he wrote that this diary is one of the strangest documents of autobiography ever written by anyone. In its pages is an agglomeration of subject matter only a catholic taste will wish to absorb -- or so it seems to me. There is virtually no physical motion to sustain interest through shifts of environment. An unwilling celibate pens it. Philosophy and pages of history walk side by side with emotional outbursts and sentimental encounters . . .

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Arthur Inman is that, even after all those words, he remains an enigma, not to say a monster, both to the reader and to himself. The only child of a well-to-do southern couple (his grandfather was the largest cotton dealer in the world), he suffered a breakdown while at Haverford College and spent the rest of his 68 years a semi-invalid in a room with the shades drawn.

A medical report lists these complaints: headache, photophobia (when he went outdoors he often wore a blindfold), blurred vision, spots and myopia; constipation, diarrhea, abdominal distention, hemorrhoids, prostatitis, testicular pain, bladder infections, sore throat, mouth and tongue; allergies, depression, Me'nie re's disease (an ear infection that affects the balance), gall bladder disease, alcoholism and skin cancer, of which the doctors found no evidence.

Again and again he described his "loose joints," floating bones and organs and what he called "auto-intoxication," which sounds as if he were allergic to himself. His life was a constant round of high-saline enemas whose product he recorded in clinical and disgusting detail, graphically depicted stomach pumpings, osteopathic and ultraviolet-ray treatments.

In his rage to bring the world to his room, he advertised in the Boston papers for people to read to him, or just talk, for $1 or more an evening, and he favored young girls, whom he would induce to lie down beside him on the bed, there to be fondled and examined and occasionally seduced.

He got his wife Evelyn to procure girls for him, later drove her to drink and manipulated her into having an affair with his osteopath, for which he viciously reproached her. His opinions of the outside world were unattractive, to say the least: He despised blacks, fantasized being able to "take two thousand dollars and go downtown to the mart and buy someone," admired Hitler extravagantly ("I wish a Fascist Party would arise in this country. I would join it with haste"), wept when Sen. Joseph McCarthy died, fumed for decades at Franklin Roosevelt, whom he referred to as "the Rat," favored the Germans in World War I, hero-worshiped Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Mussolini, praised the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and railed against the "filthy Irish" and "unspeakable Jews."

Most of all he hated himself, and he tried to commit suicide twice before he finally succeeded, ranting hysterically against the noise and bustle of the construction of the 50-story Prudential Center just across the street from his hotel.

Yet the saga has a mesmerizing appeal, for he wrote with rigorous candor -- though he never did seriously face down the causes of his neuroses. And his thumbnail sketches of the hundreds of characters -- including the owner of "the only known Petrified Ham in the United States and possibly in the world" -- who whisked through his life "like parades of medieval figures strolling across tapestries," his peanut-gallery view of America and the world through two world wars and the nuclear age, the minutely recalled scenes, the rooms he lived in clear back to childhood, roll past with the majestic sweep and urgency of a Thomas Wolfe. Unfortunately, unlike Wolfe, it rarely sings.

I am sitting alone in 706 writing. It is a very small room, walls papered a dark brown, woodwork and floors varnished imitation mahogany, a cubbyhole of a bathroom. The whole has an air of cheapness, from the burlapped window seat to the brass bed with a couple of rods missing. The wind is blowing puffily through the windows and swaying the green curtains which are fixed over windows and door to protect my eyes from light . . . I look out and down. I see a red, white and blue truck with "American Maid Bread" painted on its side in flaring white letters and its driver straining to one side to carry a basket of pies up a concrete walk into a house opposite. I see two small youngsters trying to carry a box twice as large as themselves and pausing every now and then to talk over how it can be done. I see in a backyard a tan and white mongrel dog who wags and wags his tail in frantic endeavor to locate the sound when I whistle. And down the back alley, all cluttered and disorderly with scraps and bits of paper and broken boxes, slinks a jet black cat . . .

Since the death of Evelyn Inman last June, there is probably no one in the world who knows her late husband as well as his tireless editor, Daniel Aaron. In his cluttered office at Harvard, where books are stacked on chairs and tables, on the floor and on boxes of other books, and completely cover three walls -- even the bicycle at the foot of the desk has books in its basket -- Aaron tells of his battle with the diary.

"I think I feel pretty detached," he says, "but you get sucked into it. You can't spend too much time with this man and his world and what's going on inside his mind. I resented him, of course, when I was beginning. Such an awful man. And yet there was something kind of poignant behind it all, and at the end, he was banking everything on it, the diary, he was a great gambler, risking everything."

Inman had approached all sorts of famous people in his search for a publisher: Walter Lippmann, surgeon-author Alexis Carrel, scholar Albert Jay Nock. After his death his estate sent a sample to Harvard University Press, and eventually Aaron, a diary aficionado, was assigned to it, given an office and an assistant, Elizabeth Smith.

"Aida Donald, the wife of David Donald, the Harvard historian, is executive editor of the Harvard Press," Aaron says, "and David happened to see some samples of the diary when she brought them home to consider. He became fascinated and urged her to take the document very seriously."

Aaron, like the reviewers and most who read the diary, is hard put to describe it. Rousseau, Pepys, Proust . . . many names are mentioned, but none quite covers this rambling and defiantly unique creation: a man's attempt to record his life and times, thoughts and feelings, down to the last sniffle.

"Look at the name. In-Man. A very Hawthornian name. This In-Man, this ghostly fellow, was a voyeur literally and spiritually, a Paul Pry, with that illicit excitement you get by invisibility. I think the darkness of his room was a kind of invisibility for him. It's interesting that he put in all those nasty reviews of his poetry, all the things people said against him. The candor of it, the self-revulsion he exhibited. Also I think it's just very funny.

"His voyeurism wasn't done as a pervert but as a sociologist. He'd look through the window at the Boston University girls across the street taking their physical exams, and he wouldn't get sexually excited but would say, Reader, you may be interested to know the way women dress, these days. He was like a scientist or artist, looking sometimes brutally at these women in their absolute unself-consciousness, exploring them. The word explorer, I think, is the key word."

When the diary came out of the bank vault, suitcases and trunks full of it, manuscripts, photographs, tapes ("a very nice southern voice, pleasant and cultivated, rather sexy"), Aaron was appalled. The handwriting was absolutely unreadable, and without the typed version he could never have done the job, he says.

He spent the first year going through the whole thing and compiling an outline. It came to 1,200 single-spaced pages.

"I had to lop off whole characters," he recalls. "There were a thousand of them at least. The version I presented to the press was 300 pages too long, good stuff, but they just couldn't get it in. They kept saying, No, this can't go in, there's just no room. We had to keep shaving and shaving and shaving. It's hard to think of a thing that size being hard to cut."

It was a veritable Collyer Mansion of words. Magazine articles were copied into it, radio speeches, hundreds of letters, dozens and dozens of letter sequences that amounted to epistolary novels in themselves.

"I was sick of it after a year or two," Aaron says, "but then it became more and more interesting as a kind of problem. Finally you just become part of that microcosm. He changes. He becomes more self-critical, more open about psychiatry. People liked him. He could be perfectly proper with young girls, though now we'd see him as a dirty old man. He was rather defiant about his pedophilia. Yet there was still this Victorian reticence. He didn't like them to use bad language . . . though he would, of course.

"He felt life owed him. His own life had been so impoverished, he was out to get all he could. He was sincere about helping people, sometimes helped put them through college. When the women's colleges in the area wouldn't allow their girls to see him, he felt ashamed. Sometimes he'd allow the diaries to be seen and read: He enjoyed teasing, was sort of a sadomasochist. He'd do things just to provoke something to get the diary going again."

A most valued ally was Evelyn Inman, to whom the book is dedicated. A gently raised Wellesley student, restless at home, she was fascinated by the romantic "poet." She came to resent her life bitterly, yet as Aaron says, "the marriage sputtered on for 40 years."

"I came to admire her just tremendously," he said. "A wonderful woman. How she came through all this and weathered it. She used to wonder what people would say when they saw the diary: Why did she stay with him? It was something she was very aware of."

Evelyn left Arthur in 1951, and though he later more or less wooed her back, the event was the dramatic climax of the story -- and there were still 7 million more words to cope with. Aaron's solution was to become himself a character in the book. The last section, covering 13 years, consists largely of his pre'cis of the interminable comings and goings and of his own letters to some of the people in Arthur's life. Libel was always a problem. Aaron changed the names of all the characters, their birthplaces, occupations, all identifying details. "We had marvelous photographs, wonderful photos. Couldn't use 'em."

The girl seemed literally charged with sex. I had never met anyone like her. Her dress hooked up one side. I slipped my hand in a hole there. Her skin was smooth and warm. "Do you think that's right?" she asked. "Do you think it's wrong?" I asked. "No, if you think it's not wrong," she answered. "If you don't think a thing's wrong, then it's not wrong." And that was the formula by which she made herself complacent. Before I knew it, I had the freedom of her body -- up, down, across, any way. Then she commenced kissing me. My Lord, but what a sex kick that woman had.

Aaron expects more and more of Inman's characters to pop up in public, recognizing themselves in the book. He has been in contact with many of them for years. One he met recently was Saul Gilman, regional vice president for Simon & Schuster -- the former elevator boy at Garrison Hall.

For a year in the '30s, Gilman, a Northeastern University student, worked in the hotel for $10 a week. He remembers Inman as a strange man who once rented the rooms above, below and beside his seventh-floor digs. ("The cork-lined chamber without Proust," commented one reviewer.)

"I was in his room," Gilman said, "a rather large room with blankets hanging over the front windows, a little lamp but otherwise dark as Hades. He was in bed and invited me in. The odor there was incredible. Maids refused to clean it up, he had a hired man who did it."

Sometimes Inman would go for a drive in his favorite car (he had several, gave them names like the Baby Carriage and the Cloud o' Dust), and once he asked Gilman to carry his blanket out because "there's something wrong with my hands." The invalid would be tucked into the back seat, wrapped like a mummy, to be driven around the neighborhood.

"He had one a 1919 Cadillac that he owned to the end with an open front seat for the chauffeur, and even on the coldest days he wouldn't let his driver wear gloves. Guy was practically frozen to death. Oh, he gave him a rough time."

Once a Radcliffe girl Gilman knew came into the lobby and said she was going to read for Inman. "I said, Watch it. I took her up, and 10 minutes later she's pressing on that buzzer. She was in tears. Said she was reading to him, and all of a sudden this hand appears and starts fondling her breast. I walked her home that night, all the way to Cambridge. She was just a kid, a freshman. She didn't come back, but some others I knew did. A dollar was a dollar then."

Inman was an omnivorous reader and often would ask Gilman what he was reading, would ask about his family, his life, his plans, his Jewishness. He gave the boy an autographed book of his poems, which Gilman hopes is still around somewhere.

"I couldn't believe the way this guy was living: the servants, the doctors floating in and out, the plumber making regular house calls. Doctors made a fortune off him. I remember his father came to see him. 'How's that nut?' he'd say. 'How's he getting along?' When I left they were changing it to apartments and he was going crazy. Why he stayed, with all that money, I don't know."

Inman's last years were a constant agony dominated by the noise and dust of the wreckers and the erection of the Prudential Center.

Jumping out of my skin with nervousness from the nearer and nearer demolition, motors racing, walls falling (the ball is being used), the buildings shaking and creaking. Three-fifths of the long row of buildings along Huntington Avenue must be down now, and the pace is being quickened. By the end of this week, the building opposite my bedroom window will be under attack. With every building demolished, new electric lights and signs are let free to shine in my sitting room where it is so bright I have to shield my eyes with something to raise the window open at night . . . I feel like a Medieval baron in his besieged keep, forces and weapons constricting ever tighter around his security.

Garrison Hall today has mostly been converted to condos, but the 86-year-old building looks much as it always did. Situated at Garrison and St. Botolph behind Marriott's giant new Copley Place, it faces a row of apartment buildings that are being gutted for renovation. Around the block, turreted old red-brick buildings four stories high alternate with trim new apartment houses.

Down the block are the Boston Shakespeare Company in an old convention hall, the Nichiren Shoshu of America ("Learn about Buddhism and chanting"), a stained-glass studio, a bindery and the chic little bay-windowed St. Botolph's Restaurant.

In the Garrison lobby with its terrazzo floor, carved ceiling and twin fake-marble pillars sits superintendent Paul Brandano, an affable young man wearing a tank top. He shows off the old front elevator, a wire-cage antique that runs on direct current. "Mayor Hurley used to live in 102, right off the lobby," he says proudly. He introduces Stephanie LaPlace, 87, who has lived there since 1936.

Her niece, Barbara Simons LaPlace, once read to Inman, she says, but Inman didn't like her style so she remained to talk. ("He made a slight pass," the niece reports, "but I didn't respond. Evelyn took you in there, through the velvet curtains, and you groped your way in because it was so dark. When they went for a drive she wore this 1920s motoring hat. She wore bangs and straight hair right into her fifties because it was what he wanted.")

Stephanie LaPlace is content with her rooms, which used to cost her $35 a month and are now up to $300. The units around hers have been turned into condos at more than double the rent. She has a fine view of the Prudential skyscraper from her small living room, snug with stuffed furniture and a gray rug that Evelyn Inman gave her.

"I used to work for a bank examiner," she says, "and when I moved in here they were shocked, their eyebrows went up, because this was a red-light district at the time. There was an alley in front and stores across the street. You couldn't see Huntington at all. This was a hotel then, you could get meals here, and they had two elevators with boys running them. It's still a beautiful building. I wear sneakers so I won't slip. I fell on my face two weeks ago and knocked some teeth out. Evelyn was a lovely lady, she lived on the sixth floor in her own apartment, and I'd see her going up at night with coffee for Arthur. We called him Arthur. He had the back elevator for himself, but she spoke to him and he let me use it. When I'd get on he'd have a paper or book in front of his eyes. I was the only other one he let use it.

"She'd take me out to lunch at the Ritz-Carlton because she thought I had no money. Or we'd sit in her rooms by the TV and then she'd say, 'I must run up to Arthur, he's waiting for me.' She told me she spent her honeymoon on this floor. She got him so that he was nice to me. I went up one day with the milk that was left downstairs by mistake, and he took me by the arm and said, 'I'd like to help you.' He meant with investment advice. Evelyn said that's the way he is. Mrs. Mercer was his secretary. He put them all up in the hotel. Evelyn had varicose veins, she had an operation, had her legs drained. They were nice people, real Americans."