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Oxford's dazzling story anthology; The Oxford Book of Short Stories, chosen by V. S. Pritchett. New York: Oxford University Press. $19.95

"The short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely," V. S. Pritchett writes in his introduction to this newest Oxford anthology. What astonishes one, though, is the rich diversity with which the 41 stories in this collection tell that one thing. In the varied subtlety and strategy of their craft, they are all emblematic of what a short story should be: a natural parenthesis in which the writer italicizes a segment of life while still conveying its greater whole.

To launch this inaugural edition of "The Oxford Book of Short Stories," one couldn't ask for anyone better than V. S. Pritchett, the modern master of the English short story.Citing "70 years of passionate addiction to the short story and 50 years as a fellow writer," he modestly omits what else so preeminently qualifies him for the task at hand. He is among our most inspired literary critics, someone whose eye for the authentic in literature is borne out of his own creative instincts.

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Invoking the "anthologist's nightmare" of space and copyright limitation, and , most regrettably, stories that have been overanthologized, Pritchett makes no claim that these are "the best." It's the "surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic tale" he has sought. In the case of Indian and New Zealand writers, for instance, he's looked "less to the ntive scene than to what these writers have given to the art." And here is where Pritchett's exacting eye serves so well. In opting for Katherine Mansfield's "The Woman at the Store," for example, he not only resurrects a neglected masterpiece; he offers a work that, by the bold originality of its voice, is a model of short story writing.

Whereas many editors could put together a serviceable anthology, few could conceive one as subtly authoritative as this. In the 41 stories here, spanning from the early 19th century to the present, Pritchett has charted the ongoing evolution of the story form itself. From the psychological rumination of Poe to the stylized density of Updike, we're witness to the genre in the Continual process of self- definition. It is this "still changing form" that fascinates Pritchett.

"The most exquisitely difficult" of forms, the short story must imply what's been left out. A gesture must seal character; a scrap of dialogue, its fate. In "Going Home," William Trevor's menacing tale of a student and a school matron on a train journey, character is clenched in conversation. It's a novel in 18 pages. "Similarly, in Henry James's "Paste," a single episode evokes the stinging betrayals that coil in his novels.

The short story, Pritchett notes, in particularly suited to the peripatetic society that spawned it. Spurred by travel, by life charged with the nervous energy of the new, the short story bristles with the raw vitality of our age.Its intensity of form feeds on the fragmentary, the exquisite tension of life lived on the move and in the moment. It's no coincidence that over half the stories in this volume spring from itinerant societies, notably America and Ireland, nor , for that matter, that it's not until the travel tales of Kipling and Stevenson that the English join the short story tradition.

If "readers used to speak of 'losing themselves in a novel," today the reader "turns to the short story to find himself." From Conrad to Cheever, we're "more intent on the theme buried in the heart." In our mass society, Pritchett writes, "we look for the silent moment in which our singularity breaks through, when emotions change, without warning, and reveal themselves." And, as these stories show, the modern tale "comes to an open end."

In our restless century, the short story catches "the nervous side-glance [ that has] replaced the steady confronting gaze." In Faulkner's "Dry September," a study of a small Southern town, the narrative crackles with nervous tension. In Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the grating emptiness of couple's life is underscored by the story's brutally minimal style.

The collision of the comic and ironic, the hallmark of Pritchett's own style, is well in evidence here. "The Oxford Book of Short Stories" is laced with wit. From Vocation," to the corrosive comedy of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, humor is often the fastest course to the intelligent heart. Often, as in Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover," it is not until the final paragraph that we shriek with horror and delight at the oddities of human nature.

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For this reason, "The Oxford Book of Short Stories" not only earns a permanent space on our shelves, but in our hearts as well.

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