By John Lukacs

Ticknor & Fields. 328 pp. $19.95

JOHN LUKACS needs some cheering up. Toward the end of this expectedly wonderful book, he falls into deep gloom about such things as the disappearance of real bookstores, libraries empty of people and his own failure as a historical writer, for "many of my books remain and will remain unread by those to whom they have been directed: scholars and students and amateur readers of history." In what almost passes for optimism, he does allow that there are a "few hundred men and women, mostly unknown to me, who will read anything I write."

Well, there is something to what Lukacs says, at least about his own situation. He cannot be called a popular writer, and the historical community (a term he of course loathes) tends to ignore him, sometimes in he most peculiar ways. For example, a scholarly journal dedicated to philosophical problems of history failed to review his Historical Consciousness and later omitted any reference to it in a massive bibliographical issue that "listed everything that had been published in every retrievable language -- relating to topics, themes and problems of historical philosophy during the {years} when my book had been published." Even books published in Bulgarian. A devout Catholic, self-described reactionary and person of incomparable erudition, he cannot perhaps expect otherwise.

Lukacs came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1946, at age 22, a refugee from the new Communist government. He was from an educated, cosmopolitan family -- not the aristocracy he so admired, but the Anglophile upper middle class. He can best be described as a traditionalist. Thus he writes of his maternal grandparents: "They were the most admirable people I have ever known -- well-to-do, modest, Jewish and thoroughly bourgeois," that they were people of their word, well remembered for "their older standards, their character, their self discipline."

Confessions of an Original Sinner, part autobiography, part an account of the development of Lukacs's thoughts and beliefs, continues the historical themes of his The Last European War 1939-1941, a work of striking originality. Lukacs is concerned with the sentiments of nations and peoples, their beliefs, their interior lives. These are not particularly easy matters, but ones that give room for his own often startling views and for his insistence on the need to think, to study and to face matters as they are and were, as in his unsettling reminder that during the Second World War the anti-Nazi resistance movement "did not really begin to be effective in Western Europe until more and more people were convinced that the Germans were losing the war," and that in Eastern Europe the partisans who had helped the Germans round up Jews then began shooting Germans -- after the Russians started to win.

Yet in his native Hungary the sentiments of the working classes, in typical refutation of Marxist doctrine, remained pro-German even with the liberating Soviet army at the gates of Budapest.

It's not all such heavy going. Lukacs has lived in the United States for more than 40 years, throughout that time as a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic women's college in Philadelphia. He is an often witty and always fascinating -- even entertaining -- writer. He can be wicked (and I distinguish this from his occasional fits of ill temper) as in a remarkable passage -- an historical expose' of sorts -- on his fellow Hungarian and Philadelphian, Eugene Ormandy.

But at his best Lukacs is an elegant, romantic writer, as in this: "Within the first hour of our acquaintance {my future father-in-law} asked me about Napoleon's marshals. He knew the names of all of them by heart; but of course he was not a professor, and certainly not an intellectual. I loved him, and I loved his eldest daughter, whom I married in 1953. I was introduced to her in a house on Rittenhouse Square which no longer exists. The square was muffled in fog and the few lights were brilliant in the night."

At the outset I mentioned some need to cheer up John Lukacs. Here are two tries. My wife remembers him as the best teacher she ever had, even -- no little praise -- a better teacher than writer. And I can report that the ever-filled libraries of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, contain many of his books, some of them rather marked up with underlining and notes by some admiring, and some not admiring, readers. Which is what the reaction should be to a great writer and historian.

Robert Louis Benson writes occasionally on historical and literary topics for Book World.