IT WAS AN invitation no book reviewer could refuse. Several weeks ago, well in advance of the pre-Christmas turmoil, I and a dozen other regular reviewers of fiction for Book World received an invitation to participate in a holiday symposium on this tantalizing question: "Which character in fiction would you most like to be, and why?"

Not in the least surprisingly, none of those offered the chance to participate in this novel seminar declined to do so. For some, as you can see from the pieces below, the choice was easy; for others it was difficult, torn as they were among a number of characters who had managed to work their way into their hearts.

ONE HOUR and 35 minutes before we were to land on the beach of an island in the Philippines called Cebu, the first scout handed me something called Farewell, My Lovely by someone called Raymond Chandler. It was January of 1945 and I was 18 years old.

The title sounded as if it could have been thought up by the American equivalent of Agatha Christie, whose works to this day I cannot read. Imagine my surprise, as Dame Agatha might say, when I opened it to discover Philip Marlowe over on that mixed Central Avenue block in east Los Angeles.

I lost the half-read Marlowe book on the beach just after the first scout was killed. I took over the dead man's job and spent 109 days on the line wondering who Velma really was. In the midst of the heat and the fear and the dying, I decided I needed to be Philip Marlowe safely back in Los Angeles in that palmy year of 1940 -- in a time that would never change. It was a harmless enough notion that probably kept me sane.

I last encountered Marlowe on Christmas eve of 1958 in Copenhagen. His final advenlture, Playback, was just out, but Marlowe had grown old and garrulous, nattering on about God and the hereafter. After I read it, Ilse the blonde and I went down to the hotel bar. There I tried to explain why I once had desperately needed to be Philip Marlowe, caught up forever in 1940. But she was a realist from Berlin and didn't know what I was talking about. So we talked about Rilke instead.