Kissinger memoir - a literary and historical tour de force; Years of Upheaval, by Henry Kissinger. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1,283 pp. $24 .95.
''What!'' the average reader contemplating purchase of this book might exclaim. ''Another volume from Henry Kissinger on his service with the Nixon and Ford administrations - 1,283 pages long, and covering only the two years of 1973 and 1974. It's bound to be long-winded and boring.''
If anybody needs reminding, 1973 and 1974 were the years when Watergate reached its climax and President Nixon was forced to resign, when the Vietnam peace agreement was signed and then began to unravel, when the fourth Arab-Israeli war was followed by Dr. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, when the oil producers discovered they could call the tune on pricing (because of its global effect, ''one of the pivotal events in the history of this century,'' writes Dr. Kissinger), when the Allende regime was overthrown in Chile, when the US lost its clear nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, and when SALT negotiations with the Russians stalled, leaving us nearly a decade later still without a ratified SALT II treaty.
Far from being boring, Dr. Kissinger's account of these ''Years of Upheaval'' is a literary and historical masterpiece that makes superb reading. The only time that this reviewer found it heavy going was in Chapter 22, when Dr. Kissinger gets into the arcane details of nuclear weaponry in the context of SALT negotiations.
The former secretary of state is for many Americans a controversial figure - often unfairly so. Those implacably hostile to him are likely to argue that this book is a partisan view of history, rehashing the Kissinger line on such issues as wire-tapping, Chile, and Cambodia. But what autobiographical memoirs are disinterested? Were Churchill's splendid volumes on World War II?
In this writer's view, only the most obtuse and prejudiced would seek to deny Kissinger's gifts. He has a wonderful sense of history. He understands the manipulation of power, both at the individual and state level - and obviously enjoys it. One suspects that he chafes at the way in which the Reagan Republicans exclude him from office and its counsels. And one suspects equally that, still relatively young, he remains as ambitious as ever to feel reins of power in his hands again. One senses his regret that his foreign birth bars him from the US presidency when, in noting Sen. Henry Jackson's presidential ambitions, he observes that these are ''not unworthy'' for ''a public figure fortunate enough to be a native-born citizen of the United States.''
Modesty is hardly his strong suit. Neither is tact - at least in the context of American domestic politics. He knows he is brilliant and cannot resist the temptation to rub that fact in.
But it is this brilliance that gives his book both its sparkle and its profoundly insightful passages. Ponder for a moment his finely honed sense of words in some of his observations:
* On former Defense Secretary James R.Schlesinger: ''If he was at least my equal in intelligence, I conceded him pride of place in arrogance.''
* On Senator Jackson: ''Not a man to welcome debate over firmly held convictions; he proceeded to implement his own by erecting a series of legislative hurdles that gradually paralyzed our East-West policy. He was aided by one of the ablest - and most ruthless staffs - that I encountered in Washington.''
* On former President Ford: ''this quintessential American . . . this good man.''
* On Alexander Haig: ''By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline, he held the government together (during Nixon's last days in the presidency). . . . Only a man of colossal self-confidence could have sustained such a role. His methods were sometimes rough. . . . But the role assigned to Haig was not one that could be filled by choirboys.''
* On the White House staff in the Ehrlichman-Haldeman years: ''Men who lack a past are unreliable guides to the future. . . . They were expediters, not balance wheels. And once the machine started skidding, they accelerated its descent over the precipice rather than braking it in time.''
* On the late Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai: ''electric, quick, taut, deft, humorous.''
* On Soviet President Brezhnev: ''dedicated to the victory of his ideology. But there was also in Brezhnev a clearly evident strain of the elemental Russia, of a people that has prevailed through endurance, that longs for a surcease from its travails and has never been permitted by destiny or the ambitions of its rulers to fulfill its dream.''
* On the late Golda Meir: ''Shrewd, earthy, elemental, she felt herself to be the mother of her people.''
* On the late Anwar Sadat: ''a statesman of the first order . . . free of the obsession with detail by which mediocre leaders think they are mastering events, only to be engulfed by them. . . . (Yet) not to be viewed as everybody's genial uncle. He was as tough as he was patient.''
* Finally, on Richard Nixon, that complicated, insecure, tormented Californian, often impressively shrewd in the handling of foreign affairs yet with such a petty, dark side to his character: ''On his way to success he had traveled on many roads, but he had found no place to stand, no haven, no solace, no inner peace. He never learned where his home was.''
In the last resort, does not that sum up the challenge for each one of us?