Thoroughly British Short Stories

A CARELESS WIDOW AND OTHER STORIES by V.S. Pritchett, New York: Random House, 160 pp., $16.95

ALFRED MORTON ANDREWS sits in the corner seat of a train. An English train. In fact everything in these six short stories is English through and through - landscape, people, weather.

Mr. Andrews's face as he waits for the train to move off is ``as pink as Aberdeen granite, his chin raised, his nose on its dignity.''

And no wonder for a ``short and avid woman with dry grey hair is standing at the open door shouting `I hope we never set eyes on you again.'''

Mr. Andrews in ``A Trip to the Seaside,'' suffers because some power, as the poet Robert Burns put it, never thought to give him ``the giftie'' to see himself as others see him.

Frazier has a related problem. In ``A Careless Widow,'' he is on holiday trying to forget he is Lionel, the hairdresser (```You know,' ladies said, `how difficult it is to get an appointment with Lionel.''') The gift he lacks is the ability to see others as they see themselves - not as heads to be ``gardened as he gardened the plants on his balcony.''

Then there are the eccentrics - always favorites in Pritchett's books - unattractive characters like Rhoda in ``Things'' or real charmers like the boy genius in ``Cocky Olly.'' They get along very nicely since it never occurs to them to wonder how they seem to others or even themselves.

Readers who know any of this distinguished writer's 35 other books, will recognize with pleasure Pritchett's gift for bringing a character to life or a landscape to the eye in just a few paragraphs. There's humor in the writing too - he can do marvels with the unexpected use of a word. He tells us of a ``bleak armchair with wooden arms that dared any one to sit on it,'' of ``the first sight of the sea flying like a flag,'' of a couple who look ``as though they had hired each other.''

What his gift for compression enables him to do is to involve us so thoroughly that these short stories expand in our minds to novel-length proportions. The effect reminds me of those old-fashioned Japanese shells that remain clenched tight shut until they are dropped into a glass of water. Then, as they slowly open, a paper flower unfolds and fills the glass.

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