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Bowen: master of mood, craft; The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, introduction by Angus Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf $17.95.

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The ephermeral quality of much recent fiction and the skyrocketing prices of hardcover books have taught many readers patience -- patience to wait for the paperback edition or the library copy. Here is a book that in its original hard-cover form is a blue-chip investment, rather than an extravagance. This collection of stories by the lately rediscovered British writer is so rich in imagination, pschological insight, entertainment, craft, and sheer volume -- 79 stories are included -- as to be a bargain at the price.

Bowen, born in Ireland to a genteel family on the decline, went early to England, where she wrote the eight novels currently in print, a family memoir, several other volumes of nonfiction, and, arguably her finest work, these stories. Taking as her themes romantic love, decay and decline, unequal relationships and the loss of the past, and applying them to both individuals and societies, she focused on a particular class -- the British upper -- in a particular period -- the Edwardian Age through World War II -- of cataclysmic change, including the decline of class, the decay of empire, shifting supremacies, and the annihilation of entire blocks, literal and figurative, of personal and national history. Many of Bowen's heroines, particularly in the novels, have, as a result of their experiences, a vaguely disoriented, self-destructive air about them; the stories, being more constricted and immediate, are for the most part populated by more precisely focuse and motivated characters, to the reader's greater delight, I think.

The stories fall into all the varieties of the genre. There are monologues slice-of-life sketches, ghost stories, drawing room dramas, character studies, and novellas.With only one or two exceptions, they are consistently entertaining and fascinating for their skillful delineated of the contracdictory impulses, desires, and social strictures that cause people to do the things they do

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