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Choose Your Own World, Edouard Roditi, Asylum Arts.

Edouard Roditi is credited with being the first writer in the English language to use the word `surrealism.' This was back in 1929, when Roditi was a precocious student at Oxford University and apparently one of the few people in England at the time to know much about that new artistic sensation from across the channel. In an essay entitled "The New Reality," published in the Oxford Outlook, Roditi gave what he later described as being a "naive" account of the surrealist experiment. Naive or not, the essay is still consulted by scholars today.

Roditi would later live in Paris, and throughout Europe, contributing his poems and essays to such magazines as transition and VVV. He earned his living as an interpreter for various government and business conferences, and for the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War. The 1960s saw Roditi's work published by the legendary Kayak Press and the New Directions Annual. The 1974 Black Sparrow collection Emperor of Midnight contained much of his early writings for surrealist magazines and his fantastical prose poems. The present Choose Your Own World gathers together 54 of his prose poems and short fictions from the past twenty years.

The collection begins with "New Old and New Testaments," containing eight glosses on traditional Bible stories and characters. These are, as might be imagined, neither morally uplifting nor particularly spiritual. Rather they provide ironic versions of Adam discovering Eve (he is distressed that she comes with no instructions) and Lazarus returning from death (he is not pleased with the change of scene). Closing the section is "The Temptations of a Saint," which focuses on the narrator himself and his life in a high-rise apartment building. He has a problem. Every night his dreams create new monsters and monstrous situations, ending with the narrator trapped within a giant teapot, the boiling water threatening to boil him as well.

The largest section of the book is entitled "A Choice of Worlds." The pieces gathered here are first-person narratives reminiscent of the Trivia books of Logan Pearsall Smith, at least to my mind. Both writers share a love of whimsical premises, beautifully rolling sentences, and self- deprecating humor. But Roditi is far more political than Smith ever was (was he ever?) and he possesses a wilder imagination.

An example of a whimsical premise: In "How to Live in Your Own Ear" Roditi raises the odd question of how to do just that, comparing the practice to a snail in his shell. He asks the reader how it might be done, which ear would be chosen, and so on, and imagines the cozy, dark comfort of the snug abode.

An example of a beautifully rolling sentence from "In Praise of the Status Quo": "Now that it has become relatively easy to change one's sex, we've begun to consider also ways and means of changing one's species."

An example of self-deprecating humor: In "A Program for Self- Improvement" Roditi speaks of ways to improve his appearance, leading logically from weight reduction and muscle toning to such thoughts as adding green tusks to his upper jaw and a tattoo of a boa constrictor around his torso. His thoughts end in confusion as he considers the question of "how to improve my mind. There seem to be, for instance, so many different ways of becoming a genius or a saint."

As I said, a wild imagination.

Only when Roditi strays into more political realms does he fall a tad flat. References to Reagan or the Nicaraguans seem too public and mundane for a book so obviously in its own private world of the imagination. And a writer who is so good at personal whimsy--possesses a genius for it, in fact--seems somehow unqualified to be speaking on such larger matters. Better to stay with the personal, the quirky, the delightfully illogical. That's where Roditi is an absolute, unquestioned master.

--Thomas Wiloch