FICTION

Marriages , by Amy Witting (Penguin, $6.95). Six stories by Australian writer Amy Witting flay romantic notions like dead skin off the idea of married love. For Witting's characters the most that is possible is a moment or two here and there of grudging tenderness in a prevailing atmosphere of distrust and resentment: "I suppose I can stand you as you are," admits Matt in "A Bottle of Tears," "What you don't see is that happiness is pretty commonplace really. Anyone can have it, even people like you and me." In a world like this, even harsher in the book's best story, "The Survivors," rabbity 16-year-old Gloria's decision to leave her irresponsible brute of a husband and take the baby with her becomes a small triumph of courage and hope.

NONFICTION

Travels with Alice , by Calvin Trillin (Avon, $7.95). If Calvin Trillin isn't the greatest living American wit, he will do nicely until the genuine article comes along. This collection of his sallies finds him footloose in America and Europe, coping with such annoyances as French attitudinizing and the Spanish language. Concerning the former, he notes his own attempt to imitate "that look Frenchmen in cafes use to indicate without a word that what has has just been said may well be true for the simple reason that so many other silly things are." About the latter he writes a long, wonderfully loco piece, "Abigail y Yo," about his fumbling attempt to resuscitate his Spanish.

Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier , by Wallace Stegner (Penguin, $8.95). The great distinction of Wallace Stegner's memoir of his childhood in southern Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills is its language: Rich and plain as good toffee, it is best read in short, sweet doses. From 1914, when Stegner was five years old, until 1920, his family homesteaded on the wind-scoured prairie just above the 49th parallel dividing Saskatchewan from Montana. He grew up "a sensuous little savage," ignorant of the tides of history lapping around his family's summer shack and the house in the village of Whitemud where they wintered. But on his return a lifetime later, he brings back acquired knowledge of the Indians, the me'tis, the Hudson's Bay "adventurers," the surveyors, Mounties and cowpunchers who witnessed the final passage of frontier life just a generation before his family arrived.

Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977 , edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95). This hefty collection of letters follows the fortunes of Nabokov during his American years -- and consequently makes a good complement to volume one of Brian Boyd's recent biography (which stops with the Nabokov family on its way to New York). From the beginning Nabokov wrote a precise, acerbic English, lyrical and scientific when describing butterflies, wrathful and witty when dealing with publishers and editors. Here are letters to friends at Cornell, to Katharine White at The New Yorker, to Maurice Girodias at the Olympia Press, to young admirers like Carl Proffer, Alfred Appel and Andrew Field. The longest sequence follows the creation, marketing and dazzling success of Lolita, the book that brought Nabokov world-wide fame.

An Old Man's Toy: Gravity at Work and Play in Einstein's Universe , by A. Zee (Collier, $9.95). From a distinguished physicist who writes an angelically light and lucid prose we have here a history of modern science in four movements -- "gravity, universe, universe, gravity," since the discovery of gravity is the cornerstone of contemporary physics. Mindful of the lay reader's limitations Zee entertainingly explores the meaning of the discoveries of geniuses from Newton to Einstein.

LITERARY MAGAZINES

The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Grove Press Number, Fall 1990 , edited by John O'Brien; guest editor S.E. Gontarski (1817 79th Avenue, Elmwood Park, IL 60635, $8). For over 40 years Grove Press stirred up trouble by publishing erotica (My Secret Life, The Story of O), a counter-cultural magazine (Evergreen Review), giants of world literature (Beckett, Borges, Genet), European avant-gardistes (Georges Bataille, Witold Gombrowicz, Alain Robbe-Grillet), and books as popular and controversial as Che Guevara's writings on revolution, The Autobiography of Malcom X, and I Am Curious (Yellow). This issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction offers essays on the press, an interview with and article by its legendary owner Barnet Rosset, memoirs by Gilbert Sorrentino and John Rechy, an account of Grove's last days, and much else. Also articles about Julian Rios' Joycean novel Larva and 50 pages of book reviews.

Scripsi: Vol. 6/No. 2 , edited by Peter Craven and Andrew Rutherford (Oxford University Press, $12). Australia's leading literary magazine is nothing if not cosmopolitan. Here are essays on Samuel Beckett by his British publisher John Calder, a review of Proust's letters by David Malouf, a defense of translation as poetry by Charles Tomlinson, articles on Pynchon and George Steiner, short fiction by Janette Turner Hospital and Amy Witting, and poetry by Kenneth Koch, Les Murray, August Kleinzahler and others. Beautifully designed, well printed and with many photographs.

In Transition: A Paris Anthology , with an introduction by Noel Riley Fitch (Anchor Book, $14.95). There have always been experimental literary magazines (the Pre-Raphaelites brought out The Germ, the Vorticists had Blast), but Eugene Jolas's transition (always lower-case, despite the cover of this anthology) was perhaps the most international. This collection reproduces the exact look -- strong black and white linearity -- of the magazine's stories, poems, illustrations and articles, by writers as various and renowned as Beckett, Gide, Hemingway, Man Ray, Picasso, Rilke, Stein and many others, not least James Joyce who gave transition 18 segments of his Work in Progress (later Finnegans Wake).