FICTION

The Present and the Past and Parents and Children, both by Ivy Compton-Burnett (Penguin, $5.95; $6.95). Like Henry Green and Ronald Firbank (both of whom she resembles), Ivy Compton-Burnett prefers to tell her stories largely in dialogue; her characters, whether children or pensioners, speak with the serenity of the gods and the aphoristic wisdom of La Rochefoucauld. Her novels are consequently all of a piece: Gothic hugger-mugger about wills and legacies; sexual entanglemnets (often incestuous), and portraits of family life that make the house of Atreus look positively convivial. For those happy few with a morbid turn of mind and an affection for elegant comedy, Compton-Burnett's novels are worth acquiring in toto.

The Sky Changes, by Gilbert Sorrentino (North Point Press, $12.50). Admirers of Gilbert Sorrentino's work -- in fiction, poetry and criticism -- got their start with this first novel, the dissolution of a marriage portrayed through the account of a trip across the United States. As might be expected from the author of Mulligan Stew, the book is immensely assured, composed with dazzling and precise verbal dexterity, and replete with both a scarcely muted sadness for the loss of love and despair over a cheapened American culture. A bit dour, yes, but new readers should also bear in mind that no one writes better than Sorrentino about sex. This reissue has been slightly reworked and two new chapters added; readers who recall Sorrentino's Blue Pastoral will note many parallels.

The Night Child, by Celeste de Blasis (Bantam, $3.50). Celeste de Blasis can romance with the best of them. This fast-pace historical thriller casts a beautiful young Boston governess into the Maine household of a complex and dashing 19th-century widower and his autistic daughter. There is mystery about the death of the child's mother, romance between the governess and her employer, and an undercurrent of danger in all of it.

Learning to Swim and Other Stories, by Graham Swift (Washington Square, $6.95). Most American readers have come to know the British writer Graham Swift through his novel Waterland, a nominee for the Booker Award in 1983. But Swift is master of the short story as well, and this collection of short fiction about marriage, families, coming of age, shows him in his artistic laboratory, experimenting with words, meaning and narrative.

NONFICTION

Munch: His Life and Work, by Reinhold Heller (University of Chicago Press, $22.50). "Joy is the friend of sorrow . . . spring is the herald of autumn. Death is the birth of life," wrote Edvard Munch, the artist of The Scream, The Kiss, The Vampire, shortly before his death in 1944. Like T.S. Eliot's poetry, Munch's art is a masterful blending of vivid colors and striking images with brooding, disturbing hues and settings. Reinhold Heller provides an informative, insightful text, interspersing Munch's biographical notes, including previously unpublished translations of Munch's writings, with discussions of his art and his importance as precursor of German expressionism. (180 illustrations, some in color).

Biophilia, by Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press, $6.95). This is a lament for the destruction of wild species by a man knows whereof he cries, E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology. What disturbs him most is not the furriness or big eyes of the creatures in jeopardy, but the loss of possibilities entailed by the extinction of any species. By drawing on the now- familiar process of dividing data into bits, he calculates that "a single bacterium possesses about ten million bits of genetic information" and that "one lump of earth contains information that would just about fill all fifteen editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica." If this makes the loss of a species sound like book-burning, that is precisely Wilson's point.

The Life Of Rossini, by Stendhal; translated by Richard N. Coe (Riverrun Press, $11.95). Stendhal is just about everyone's favorite French novelist, but his nonfiction may be even more entertaining. In diaries, travel books, letters and memoirs Stendhal continually blasts his native France and sings arias to the glory of Italy. This biography of Rossini is consequently as much a delineation of an ideal world of music, beauty, love and badinage as it is a life of the composer of The Barber of Seville. As both, it is immensely readable, a grab-bag of erotic intrigue, bon mots, and musical anecdote, and an ideal introduction to both the writer and the composer.

Unquiet Soul: A Biography of Charlotte Bronte, by Margot Peters (Atheneum, $12.95). Recently critics have tended to rate Charlotte Bronte's Villette higher than Jane Eyre, making her the author of two classics. This highly praised biography views Charlotte's life as "both an eloquent protest against the cruel and frustrating limitations imposed upon women and a triumph over them." As the title indicates, it was an unhappy life, full of untimely deaths (her brother Branwell and, not long after, her brilliant sister Emily), but at least there were artistic fulfillment and fame.

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, by Breyten Breytenbach (McGraw-Hill, $5.95). For years Breyten Breytenbach has been a thorn in the side of South Africa's apartheid supporters. As a well-educated Afrikaner he is supposed to be a member of the ruling class. Yet he has turned his back on them, left the country, and written critically, in poetry and prose, about its policies. In 1975, Breytenbach, who had been living in Europe, entered South Africa, was arrested and convicted of terrorism. He went on to spend seven years in prison, two of them in solitary confinement. This book, written during his subsequent exile in Paris, is a sometimes phantasmagorical account of those years when Breytenbach fought to maintain his sense of self in the face of dehumanizing imprisonment.

Red & Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, by S. Frederick Starr (Harper & Row, $9.95). The author, president of Oberlin College and a scholar of Russian studies, is also a professional jazz musician. He knows whereof he speaks. Starr provides a fascinating survey of jazz history in Russia, from the last days of Tsar Nicholas II through the roaring '20s (which did their share of roaring in Russia, with the help of some imported American musicians), into more recent decades when jazz has been considered by the state to be alternately subversive and suitable for the masses. Through it all, the Russian people have maintained a firm enthusiasm for this art form which, ironically, is so istinctly American.