A sampler of summer reading, from myths to memories
volumes, $115), won't fit in the bookbag, or the average budget, but it's a book that all libraries will want and all lovers of the tales of King Arthur will want to consider. This edition reproduces printer William Caxton's 1485 version of Sir Thomas Malory's great prose work. It's a delight: just perusing its pages , one sees how firmly the individual tales - of Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad; the central and climactic quest for the Holy Grail; Arthur's passing to the ''blessed isle'' of Avalon - have remained in our imaginations. Malory's late-Middle English is not all that difficult, and Spisak's judicious textual notes and glossary offer all the help a reasonably diligent reader will require. Furthermore, it's interesting to compare recent reworkings of the Arthurian saga (like Thomas Berger's ''Arthur Rex'' and Marion Zimmer Bradley's ''The Mists of Avalon'') with Malory's masterpiece.
Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930, by Robert McAlmon (North Point, $13.50) reprints Kay Boyle's 1969 expansion of a flavorful memoir by one of the unlikeliest luminaries of the American expatriate generation in Paris. McAlmon was an inept poet but a savvy publisher, whose name-dropping reminiscences of Joyce, Pound, Stein, Hemingway, and others in their orbits have a tangy energy out of all proportion to his minimal literary ability. Boyle - then a hopeful young romantic just beginning to write her own fiction - has added her memories of the period, in chapters that alternate with McAlmon's original ones. The result is a book of extraordinary charm and very real value.
A good deal of modern fiction, too, has recently been reissued. Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools (Little, Brown, $7.95) is her ambitious allegorical novel (1962) that describes a 1931 voyage from Mexico to Germany and foreshadows the looming rise of Nazism. Neither the masterpiece that was anticipated nor the turgid bore some declared it to be, the book is a compelling, exasperating assemblage of often brilliant fragments.
Dutton's Obelisk Press offers the criticism of Virgil Thomson and Cynthia Ozick among its nonfiction. Also, a standout among its fiction titles is The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford ($10.95), the 1968 volume that contains virtually all of Stafford's intense, psychologically acute (and, we've since learned, probably autobiographical) short fiction. It's a great collection.
The Arbor House Library of Contemporary Americana, which presents such offbeat reissues as Edward Hoagland's pungent circus novel Cat Man (1955) and Ross Lockridge's ambitious, outsize Raintree County (1948), now features The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher ($10.95). This ample volume includes all of Calisher's autobiographical Manhattan stories, plus those remarkable probings of neuroses (such as ''The Night Club in the Woods'' and ''The Scream on Fifty-Seventh Street'') that mark her as one of our boldest, most idiosyncratic writers.
Vintage has reissued V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State ($4.95), three masterly, linked novellas about displaced persons in various underdeveloped countries. And Knopf has brought back in hard cover A House for Mr. Biswas ($17.95), Naipaul's long, Dickensian novel about the lifelong, heartfelt search for security and respectability by a self-effacing Trinidadian journalist; it is his finest achievement.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper & Row, $15.95), the Czech dissident writer Milan Kundera describes the failures of two intersecting love affairs - erotic relationships undone both by faithlessness and by an excess of ''commitment'' and devotion. The intruding, digressive narrator makes clear what we could scarcely miss inferring - that in political and personal matters alike, fidelity and decency are as self-defeating as are their negative counterparts. The novel's cold manipulative irony is so strong that it overpowers Kundera's considerable constructive and rhetorical powers.
A more simply composed novel, The Guardian of the Word, by the West African novelist Camara Laye (Aventura/Vintage, $7.95), tells the sagalike story of an ancient black empire, and of the hero who embodies it. This rich work has the feel and weight of the oral legends that are its model; its slow, somber rhythms assemble prophecy, memory, and fantasy into a visionary dream of African unification and independence.
The Heroic Age, by Stratis Haviaris (Simon & Schuster, $15.95), uses mythical and legendary patterns and images to describe the experiences of children in wartime. The conflict is the Greek Civil War just after World War II, and the characters are several boys separated from their families and recruited into a guerrilla ''army'' of the dispossessed. Haviaris's gently ironic examination of ''the heroic age'' (when children are too young to comprehend fully what they're daring and enduring) makes his novel both a powerful pacifist argument and a compelling series of interlocking characterizations.
Piece of Cake, by Derek Robinson (Knopf, $16.95), is a long-popular novel about a year (1939-40) in the lives of several young RAF pilots, climaxing with the Battle of Britain. It's a black comedy, reminiscent of ''Catch-22,'' emphasizing their ''education'' in the facts of war and of life. Formula fiction , to be sure, but there's something more substantial in Robinson's beautifully paced revelation of his heroes' dawning understanding of their fate, and in his mastery of the details of their shared life and work.
Conversations with Eudora Welty (Mississippi, $9.95) offers, in 26 interviews spanning the years 1942-82, a low-key but revealing self-portrait of the woman who just may be the best living American writer. Welty's modesty and graciousness seem to have exorcised all traces of ego, and some incisive commentary on the art of writing shines through her unpretentious, common-sensical talk.
Salesman in Beijing (Viking, $16.95) reproduces the journal kept by playwright Arthur Miller during his experience as an American in the Orient, directing a Chinese cast in a production of his play ''Death of a Salesman'' at the Peking People's Theater in 1983. It's a rich study in cultural contrasts, and a heartening demonstration of how Miller's deeply human drama speaks to people of all traditions and ideologies.
Finally, here is a nonfiction book that I enjoyed as much as anything I read this year: The memoirs of journalist William L. Shirer are continued in Twentieth Century Journey: Volume II - The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (Little, Brown, $22.50). Here we observe the celebrated foreign correspondent in midcareer when, after experiences on several fronts, he is assigned to Hitler's Germany and prepares to share an international radio news broadcast with Edward R. Murrow back in America. What unifies the story of Shirer's career in progress is his running account of Hitler's rise, fleshed out with vivid brief sketches of Nazi leaders, plus such memorable extras as a description of Neville Chamberlain at Munich and some pungent pages on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It's obvious that Shirer foresaw exactly what Hitler intended, and it's appalling to realize that the warnings he sent back home were completely ignored. This is the journalistic memoir at its best: a portrayal of great events as they were lived and understood by a writer who knows how to make it all come alive before us. The two volumes of ''Twentieth Century Journey,'' together with Shirer's classic book ''The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,'' present an image of our century that can stand comparison with the best writing of the past 30 years.