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Ka by Roberto Calasso (Vintage £6.99)

Ka by Roberto Calasso (Vintage £6.99)

Roberto Calasso is the presiding genius of contemporary Italian literature. Ka is the third volume, and the emotional and philosophical cornerstone, of his five-volume fictional project. Readers may remember The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1994) as being a gloriously seductive meditation on the entire body of Greek mythology and The Ruin of Kasch (1996), which imaginatively recreated the emergence of modernity from the destruction of the past. Both of these novels of ideas may be remembered as being riveting and, at the same time, demanding.

Ka is even more challenging. In it, Calasso makes tangible the less familiar world of Hinduism, placing its hymns and narratives of sacrifice - the Rig-Veda and the Brahmanas - at its imaginative heart. He makes his intentions clear with two epigraphs: one from Spinoza, who remarks that ideas function as narratives of the real world; and the second from the Yogavasistha : "The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story." And before we know it, we are plunged straight into the story with the enticing first line: "Suddenly an eagle darkened the sky." This eagle taking flight spans the novel with one question: "Who is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?" Calasso, who is brilliantly and meticulously translated by novelist Tim Parks, then turns his story, which, once again, combines philosophical commentary with illuminating linguistic analysis, into a startling evocation of the historical atmosphere and emotional outlook that shaped these upper- caste Indians' thought. The emergence of consciousness is their concern, and Calasso gives it narrative shape by rehearsing their myth of the creation of the world by Prajapati, the progenitor, whose secret name is Ka (which translates as "who", or "the space between"). Calasso is keen on the idea of an "Indo-European" tradition of thought, and he brings in Proust ("a Vedantic master though unaware of being such"), Wittgenstein, Locke and Hegel as close relations of the Indian seers.

Ka is a dizzying, erudite incursion into sacred texts, which throbs with erotic, violent and enigmatic tales. Despite its scholarly austerity, to read it is, ultimately, a rewarding experience, although - as Parks himself once admitted - it needs to be read at least four times before the reader can come to terms with it.

The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman (Vintage £6.99)

Ekman is a former member of the Swedish Academy of Arts and Letters who resigned when the Academy failed to make an official statement of support for Salman Rushdie. She lives in an isolated village in north Sweden. These biographical facts should convey something of the spirit of the woman whose seriousness of purpose is equalled by an intense love for her native land. She reworks Swedish folklore into a fable that marks the changes of the past 500 years. Her hero is Skord, a mischievous, dwarf-like creature who slowly learns the ways of the world but cannot resist the call of the forest. The result is an epic work of fiction translated into stately prose that faithfully echoes Ekman's song-like cadences.

The Autobiography of Larry Sanders by Garry Shandling with David Rensin (Pocket Books £8.99)

Larry Sanders, who has dedicated this book "To me", cannot resist the call of his own narcissistic impulse. But at least he's honest. The best insight to be found into what makes Larry tick goes like this: "I like doing sketch work because it allows me to stretch as an actor. Although I don't know what that means. But I enjoy making jokes and getting laughs and receiving pay. Therefore I enjoy sketch work." Larry's puppet-master, Garry Shandling, is one of TV's great satirical wits, but the devastating acuity of his writing for that medium does not translate on to the page. Instead, we get an amusing pastiche of the celebrity biography with a stream of Borscht-circuit gags running through it.

A History of British Art by Andrew Graham-Dixon (BBC £15.99)

Excellent colour reproductions make this rummage through Britain's artistic heritage an attractive and affordable coffee-table book which coincides with his TV series on the Renaissance. Graham-Dixon writes authoritatively on what he regards as an undervalued subject, his mission to "address damaging preconceptions about both the history and the quality of art in Britain". He quotes its detractors as saying, "apart from Turner, who has there been?" This is where he really gets going, in rediscovering astonishing works like the Abergavenny Jesse and the Mercer's Hall Christ which have only recently been unearthed. Fascinating stuff that peters out towards the end.

Caravaggio: A Life by Helen Langdon (Pimlico £15)

Caravaggio's dramatically brief life (c 1565-1610) speaks directly to the modern world. His fascination with street life, sex, violence and love made him one of the earliest romantic heroes. But he is also one of the hardest for a biographer to research. Langdon has got around this problem by authentically recreating the social whirl into which young Michelangelo flung himself. She is sufficiently responsive to place and period to recreate the lowlife bustle of Milan and Rome, although the trail runs cold when her tormented subject is banished from Rome and flees to Naples, Malta and Sicily. This lack of material throws the book slightly off balance, but the author's scholarly appreciation of his work makes up for it.

Gorgeous by Lynne Bryan (Sceptre £6.99)

This first-time novelist has been compared to the artist Beryl Cook "at her fruitiest", and she certainly has a raunchy, no-nonsense approach to fiction. Her heroine, Mrs Rita Swales, is irresistible: plump, brassy, 48 and in her prime, despite The Change. Her dilemma is whether to stay with her miserable husband who is still malingering after losing his leg in an accident, or run off with her exciting new suitor. As she prepares for the fifth anniversary party of her housesitting agency, we hear the story of her life (born into council-flat poverty, followed by the rearing of four ungrateful brats), and can't help but cheer her along at the end.

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