FERNAND BRAUDEL is the leading member of the French school of historians sometimes described as "structuralist" or "total" historians. The group dates from 1929 when Marc Bloch and his colleague Lucien Febvre founded the journal Annales. Its principles are twofold. First, it thinks narrative history, especially of politics, is relatively unimportant. What matters is analysis, the long- term trends and the basic structure of society which (according to them) determine what happens. Chronology does not matter much and plays little part in their studies. Secondly, it believes that historians should be familiar with all the social sciences, especially sociology and economics, and should employ their techniques in exploring the past.

There is something to be said for these points of view, and certainly Marc Bloch himself was a fine historian. But the school has tended to solidify into an ideology, which is fatal to the writing of good history. It is also, at times, extremely pretentious and, like much French intellectual gamesmanship, reads more convincingly in the original than when exposed to the cold daylight of English translation. The most famous theorist of the school, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, has pushed its structuralist techniques to extremes, indeed to caricature; his recent book, Love, Death and Money in the Pays d'Oc, a 600-page study of an 18th-century folk-tale, is for the cultists only.

Braudel is a different case, a historian of exceptionally wide interests and breadth of reading. His enormous two-volume study of the Mediterranean w in the age of Philip II of Spain aroused worldwide interest because it made use of many sources hitherto ignored by mainstream historians and drew attention to the crucial importance of geographical factors in shaping historical events. Later Braudel directed his attention to the rise of capitalism, and what we have here is a translation of the last of a three-volume work covering the transformation of the medieval world into the modern industrial economy.

The book reflects the strengths and weaknesses both of Braudel himself and of his school. First the strengths. Braudel is an omnivorous (if undiscriminating) reader, and he is never daunted by the novelty or size of his subject matter. This volume covers not only Europe and North America but all of what we now call the Third World. He has long and fascinating chapters on the Russian penetration of Siberia, on the economics of the decaying Ottoman Empire, on the African slave trade, and on India and China. The range of his knowledge allows him to make many useful and illuminating comparisons. He has, too, an excellent eye for colorful detail. This is an entertaining book in which to browse, and even the most learned reader will find new nuggets of fact, culled from Braudel's vast mine of miscellaneous information.

But it is at this point that the weaknesses make themselves felt. It is indeed a mine of information, but a rather disorderly one. Perhaps because of the very scope and variety of his reading, Braudel has never really got it all sorted out even in his own mind. For all his stress on structures, for all his analogy of "building a house of history," Braudel strikes me as being a remarkably unsystematic writer. In a way, he is not so much an ultra- modern historian, employing all the modern techniques of sociology and economics, as a very old-fashioned one, an antiquarian, amassing huge quantities of facts, and piling them into untidy heaps. The book, curiously enough, lacks a convincing structure. At the end of it, one is not absolutely clear in one's mind why and how capitalism developed as it did. Braudel undoubtedly has a theory, but it is overwhelmed by the sheer mass of detail. Perhaps it would become clearer if I reread all three volumes from the start. Braudel is a writer of such eminence that many people are intimidated into thinking that, if they do not get his drift, the fault lies in themselves. I take a more hardnosed view: a historian, writing on a large scale, who fails to communicate his principal thesis is guilty of failing to plan his book properly.

Moreover, the failure of the structure itself reflects the ideology of the Annales school. It is, in my view, impossible to write large-scale, comprehensible history without an exacting chronological framework. The study of cause and effect in history demands strict chronology. In fact even Braudel has chronology of a sort but it is so lax and general -- he is so terrified of forcing himself into what he would doubtless term a chronological straitjacket -- that the story he tells lacks shape. It is like an overweight female who badly needs a pair of old-fashioned corsets.

Then too, the aversion to political history is a handicap. Braudel's knowledge is wide but it is often thin. I noticed when reading his book on the Mediterranean and Philip II that he is particularly unreliable on English history. That might be a marginal weakness in such a study, but when Braudel comes to describe the growth of industrial capitalism and world trade, a firm grasp of English history is essential. The emergence of an industrial economy in 18th-century England -- one of the most important events in world history, and the axis on which Braudel's book eventually turns -- cannot be understood without a careful scrutiny of the constitutional and above all legal system which made it possible. And to do this political history must not merely be included, it must be given a salient role. Braudel leaves most of it out, and so the Industrial Revolution becomes a mysterious, unexplained phenomenon.

What Braudel's work indicates to me is that there is no new and miraculous way of writing history. The French wonder-cure for understanding the past does not exist. It is all an illusion. Like other intellectual fashions, structuralist history will fade, then disappear. I suspect Braudel will eventually be ranked with those once-celebrated, now largely forgotten titans, Spengler and Toynbee. Meanwhile, he has produced another brantub in which leisured readers can dip at their pleasure.