Only a handful of writers can lay claim to a distinctive and definitive voice. Most are echoes; some, confused halftones that suggest but never articulate. V. S. Pritchett, the British essayist, critic, novelist, and short story writer, has given us, with his ''More Collected Short Stories,'' further evidence, if it were needed, of his preeminence as one such distinctive voice.
Pritchett writes of that vast middle class that progressive governments and universal education have created in the 20th century, and more particularly of the less distinguished members of that class - salesmen, minor bureaucrats, and pink-collar working women. Bourgeois in tastes, with modest aspirations for something a little better, these men and women are imbued with shrewd common sense and an instinct for self-preservation. In this collection Pritchett, with his familiar deftness, exposes their emotions, which are revealed by eccentricity and symbolic gesture rather than the crime de passion, but for all that are no less devastating in their impact on their lives.
There is little splendor and much shabbiness in their lives. In ''The Satisfactory,'' the story that best illustrates Pritchett's gifts, a sometime antique dealer and his middle-aged assistant, the unmarried Miss Tell, deal with their respective passions in, for them, a satisfactory manner. World War II has brought the antique business to a halt; Miss Tell has lost her parents and her cat, Tiger, in a bombing raid. But for Mr. Plymbell, the dealer, the worst suffering is the shortage of food. Eating is Mr. Plymbell's passion. To him the fall of France in 1940 ''was not the surrender of an heroic ally but the defeat of sauces. Bearnaise, hollandaise, madere - one saw them overrun.'' With the loss of her family, Miss Tell becomes for Mr. Plymbell ''the rarest of human beings, a creature who had three ration books, a woman who was technically three people. . . .'' The idea for a satisfactory solution comes from Miss Tell. At Polli's, a shabby restaurant with ''white pillars that gave it the appearance of a shop-soiled wedding cake,'' Mr. Plymbell now ate two lunches daily. ''While this went on, Miss Tell looked at him. She was in a strong position now. Hunger is the basis of life and, for her, a great change had taken place. The satisfactory had occurred.''