THE 20TH CENTURY is the great age for the short story, as the 19th century was for the novel. It was made possible, I think, by Chekhov, who revealed the possibilities of the form without exhausting them.

The writer who has an interesting situation or a set of characters with the breath of life in them can safely embark upon a novel without knowing where he is going but simply trusting that the subject wouldn't have claimed him unless it was ample enough to sustain a thorough investigation. The writer who doesn't know the ending of a story before he begins had better not try to write it. The details may be worked out be careful thought but the story itself has to be given, in the same sense that a lyric poem is given, with the length predetermined by the nature of the material.

The one thing a short story cannot do is go on and on; if it does, it either becomes something else, that is to say a novel, or it ends up a failure. And if the story falls short of a certain length, again it becomes something different, it moves off in the direction of the fable, though it doesn't necessarily end up there. In his introduction Irving Howe suggests that 2,500 words can be considered as the outer limit for the short short story, with 1,500 as the norm. Because of this extreme brevity, he goes on to say, situation tends to replace character, representative condition to replace individuality.

Of the 38 stories in this little anthology 10 are by American writers (Stephan Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, William Carlos Williams, Thurber, Jerome Weidman, Grace Paley, Paula Fox); six Latin American (Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Borges. Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Augusto Monterroso, Luisa Valenzuela); six Russian (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoschenko, Varlam Shalomov); six German in the sense that they were written in that language (Kleist, Gottfried Keller, Heinrich Boll, Kafka, Maria Luise Kaschnitz); three Italian (Giovanni Verga, Pirandello, Lampedusa); two Yiddish (Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz); two British (D.H. Lawrence, Doris Lessing); one Irish (Joyce); one French (Maupassant); one Japanese (Mishima). A nice mixture of what is rather to be expected and what was, for me anyway, the unfamiliar.

The editors have led off with two stories by Tolstoy. In "The Three Hermits" a bishop, hearing about an island inhabited by three weak-minded old men who live for the salvation of their souls but don't even know how to pray, goes there and, laboring patiently all day long, teaches them the Lord's Prayer, after which he departs and the wizard of Yasnaya Polyana pulls one of the sublime moments of Russian literature out of his sleeve.

The second story, "Alyosha the Pot," is about a skinny peasant lad who the more he does the more is heaped upon him. Running errands for the entire household, always cheerful, he wears out his boots, which are not even his but his older brother's castoffs, is blamed for everything that goes wrong, eats standing up to save time, asks nothing for himself and is given nothing. Do this, do that, they can say, and he does it. But the soul of this human beast of burden is unowned, unexploitable by any form of cruelty or callousness, and his fate the universal one.

Much has been made of the fact that Stephen Crane wrote about war without any actual experience of it. A comparisn of the battle scenes in his "An Episode of War" and Isaac Babel's "The Death of Dolgushov"--also included here--is instructive. Both are convincing, but Crane is dreamlike and pictorial, his wounded hero anesthetized by fear. Babel, who did know actual fighting, is casual, disconnected, and wholly dreadful: " 'You'll have to waste a cartridge on me,' said Dolgushov. He was leaning up against a tree, his boots thrust out apart. Without lowering his eyes from mine he warily rolled back his shirt. His belly had been torn out. The entrails hung over his knees, and the heartbeats were visible."

Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus" I read with my mouth open, his authority as a narrator is so great. A man knocks on the door of a two-storied house on the waterfront and at the same time removes his top hat with his black-gloved hand. The door is opened at once and 50 little boys appear in two rows in the long entry hall and bow to him. What kind of an entrance, except perhaps in a royal palace, will hold that many little boys bowing in two rows? and what on earth are they doing there? We are not told, and read on, surrendering the right to know as Kafka moves serenely from the implausible to the impossible. The man with the black gloves says to the Hunter Gracchus, lying on a bier in an upstairs room, "Are you dead?"

" 'Yes,' said the Hunter, 'as you see. Many years ago, yes, it must be a great many years ago, I fell from a precipice in the Black Forest--that is in Germany--when I was hunting a chamois. Since then I have been dead.'

" 'But you are alive too,' said the Burgomaster.

" 'In a certain sense,' said the Hunter," It is very much like a person talking in his sleep, but the Hunter is not asleep, or hallucinating. There has simply been an error in his death.

Of the Latin American stories, the best are Joao Guimaraes Rosa's "The Third Bank of the River," about a quite ordinary man who one day put on his hat, said goodbye to his family, got into a rowboat, and spentthe rest of his life rowing here and there on the river, aimless, solitary, and deaf to all entreaties; and Augusto Monteroso's "The Eclipse," in which a Spanish missionary, lost in the Mayan jungle, is captured by natives and, remembering that there will be an eclipse that day, fancies he can bamboozle them by telling them that if they kill him he will darken the sun. The first story is an intensely moving fable, the second has a kind of cold chiseled perfection.

One can always differ with any anthologist, if only on the ground of personal taste. The stories by Kleist and Gottfried Keller struck me as weak, and Thurber's "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox" as belonging in an anthology of heavy-handed humor. Marquez's "Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers" I could not make head nor tail of. Chekhov's "After the Theatre" conveys charmingly the iridescense of youth, but "Sleepy," not included here, is a vastly superior story and a better example of the form. Possibly the editors felt that it was too close in subject matter to "Alyosha the Pot," though the ending of one is a shocker and of the other a second of awareness that may be an understanding of the distinction between life and death or may be a vision of paradise.

The general level of the stories in this book is very high indeed.