JEAN MONNET, ritually and properly described as "the father of the Common Market," is on almost every establishment list of the great and good. For those who have closely followed events in Brussels, he has always posed a problem. How could this shrewd brandy dealer think that a customs union of six Western European nations would somehow evolve into a United States of Europe, erasing national sovereignties?

They don't give much away in Cognac where Monnet was born 90 years ago, so we get only a hint in these "memoirs." But just past the book's mid-point Monnet's mask slips a little. He comes closer to candor and we get the glimpse of an answer.

In the spring of 1950, Monnet, a good Frenchman, feared the drift of affairs in Europe. On the political front, Cold War rivalry must impel the U.S. to rebuild and re-arm West Germany. France would be threatened with invasion and occupation for the third time in the life of Monnet and his father. On the economic front, where Monnet was running France's Planning Commission, he had every reason to fear a revived German industry, especially in critical steel. Once again, French producers would be swamped by their more efficient rival. "France will be trapped once more in her old Malthusianism," he wrote in a memo at the time, "and this will inevitably lead to her eclipse."

How then to find a safe mechanism, appealing to the self-interests of both? How can France and Germany be bound together so tightly that war between them becomes unthinkable? At a more mundane level, how to save French industry and French steel makers from becoming minor partners in a German-dominated cartel like the prewar L'entente Internatinal d'Acier?

The answer came quickly to Monnet, a true son of Colbert, Pool the French and German resources in steel (and the coal needed to produce it) in a sanitized cartel, one run by oofficials and not for the exclusive purpose of maximizing private profits. An unnamed but consequential French steel maker is quoted as saying that nothing else would serve, a supranational body to set production quotas, fix prices and equalize costs among national competitors.

Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, was not a Wall Street lawyer for nothing and instantly sniffed the cartel implications. But he was squared away by the conviction that political benefits would flow. (Besides, cartels trouble most Wall Street lawyers only when they are making public addresses.) The Germans, still outcasts, desperately wanted to be treated as equals. So was born the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the Common Market and its protective trading rules.

The crucial 14 pages in the mid-section of this long and often tedious book reveal a glimpse of the Monnet method. Robert Schuman, France's Foreign Minister, badly needed an initiative for an upcoming meeting of the Big Three. Monnet sells his community Idea to the wise and perceptive Bernard Clappier, now head of the Banque de France, then boss of Schuman's personal office.

But it takes two to tango. So Clappier twitched the old boy net. He knew an Alsatian judge who knew Herbert Blankenhorn, chief of Chancellor Adenauer's staff. In quick order, the crucial agreement of Adenauer was secured. The final touch was to assure that the press played this as a great political event and not some complicated arrangement for coal and steel that would be buried in the financial pages. Monnet personally saw to that, briefing the three key French newspapers and, of course, Harold Callender of The New York Times.

Unhappily, there are few such illuminating sections in this long testimony to Monnet and his astonishing range to high-powered friends on both sides of the Atlantic. We do learn that Monnet at 40 spotted a young Italian beauty in her twenties, married to another man. We learn that she soon became Mrs. Monnet. This riveting tale is told in two sparse lines.

In the same way, it is comforting to discover that Monnet's first successful venture in public advice-giving was to urge a shipping cartel to end competition between French and British merchant fleets in World War I. But how did a brandy dealer in his twenties get in so easily to see Premier Rene Vivian?

However, in spite of himself, Monnet does let us discover a little of his method. He appreciates that men of high and low estate can never be flattered too much. So Walter Hallstein, who used to insist that his underlings in Brussels lay down a red carpet when he arrived in a foreign capital, is praised by Monnet for his "modesty and kindness." Similarly, Edward Heath, that shy, inhibited misplaced civil servant, is "liked above all for his human qualities." On the local Washington scene, Robert Nathan will be surprised to learn that he is creditied with the invention of national income accounting. This will also surprise Simon Kumets who won a Nobel Prize for the technique.

Of the substance, the intellectual roots of his ideas, we see even less, although it is instructive that Monnet's earliest economic memory is the tacit price-fixing agreement between the cognac firms of Martel and Hennessy. Presumably, if it is good enough for brandy it is good enough for Europe.

Someday, there will be a penetrating account of Monnet's remarkable life and the equally remarkable institutions he fathered. The author will get little help however, from the Memoirs. But he as we must be impressed by the astonishing selflessness of this extraordinary, intersitial man who seems to have labored only for the satisfaction of shaping great events.

If the Common Market - essentially a set of trading rules for both the industrial and farm products of its members - is a long way from a United States of Europe, it has nevertheless made a powerful contribution towards Monnet's original goal the creation of an insitutional web that would bind France and West Germany inextricably, make another war between them almost unthinkable.The technique, of course, based on Monnet's experience in two wars, was to centralize power and authority, eliminate competition and friction by finding points of mutual interest. Now, of course, the thrust is in the opposite direction; men everywhere want to regain control of their lives by decentralizing, by making the great bureaucracies more and not less responsive to citizens. For such tasks, the children of Cognac and Colbert are ill-suited. But who can blame Monnet for being other than he is? CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Photo by Jean Monnet Copyright (c) Karsh of Ottawa