There are a few books that immediately add distinction to the most threadbare of libraries, books that by their innate quality compensate for the tattered paperbacks and old college textbooks many of us own. Such a book is V.S. Pritchett's ''Collected Stories.'' Now in his 80s, Pritchett is one of those rare, grand old men of letters, an accolade earned by a long and distinguished career as a critic, novelist, autobiographer, and author of some of the finest short stories in modern English writing.
Pritchett's eye for the contradictions of character and the inherent humor in a situation and his ability to write clear, precise, yet vivid prose make this collection a formidable answer to those who dismiss the short story's role as a curtain raiser before the more serious business of the novel.
The collection includes such early stories as the classic ''Sense of Humor,'' in which the narrator's obtuseness is both tragic and comic, and contemporary stories like ''Tea with Mrs. Bittel'' and ''The Wedding.'' hese#are stories about men and women shaped by their past, and yet managing to triumph over that past in ways that surprise even themselves. An old woman successfully defends herself against an intruder with the brass lamp her unfaithful husband had once used to threaten her; and a young woman, humiliated in her girlhood by a small town's unkind gossip, wins the love of one of the town's leading citizens.
Pritchett's deft revelations of the curious and unexpected workings of the human heart illuminate the reality of his characters' lives, and such stories as ''The Sailor,'' ''When My Girl Comes Home,'' and ''Blind Love'' are particularly noteworthy. The woman in ''When My Girl Comes Home'' is thought by her family to have been tortured as a prisoner of war, but has actually been married to a Japanese man and been well looked after. In ''Blind Love'' another woman, with something to hide that had turned her first husband away from her, deliberately works for a blind lawyer, only to find that he has been aware of her secret from the beginning. ''I knew all the time. From the beginning, I knew everything about you.'' The denouements, however domestic, are as dramatic and affecting as those of any thriller ov mystery.
These stories celebrate the variety of the ordinary man, the stuff of the middle class: tradesmen, farmers, traveling salesmen, teachers, and secretaries. Their lives, however, are as rich, comic, and confused as those of their supposed betters. They speak the common daily speech we are all familiar with, unadorned by self-consciousness or the need to impress. Returning to London on the train, the lonely sailor tells the narrator:
'' 'Once I strike Whitechapel,' he said in the voice of one naming Singapore, 'I'll be O.K.' He said this several times, averting his face from the passing horror of the green fields.''
It is social realism, and Pritchett is to a great extent a product of the 1930s, but it is a realism transformed by his talent into art that catches and fixes the imagination.
It is common in a collection as comprehensive as this to find one or two stories that disappoint, but with the possible exception of ''The Lady from Guatemala,'' where for a moment Pritchett seems to lose his characteristic voice only to regain it triumphantly at the end, this is not true of this volume. It is rather that the stories are all good, and some just better.
Short stories as a literary form have suffered unduly from the notion that somehow they are easy to write, not to be taken seriously, and read only for amusement by minds too shallow to stick to longer works. But Pritchett himself once noted of short stories that it is their natural intensity and the fascination of packing a great deal into a little space, which give them, at their best, a brilliance and acuteness of understanding that more discursive works would do well to emulate. This volume is eloquent testimony to a writer whose command of the metier ranks him with the best.