Unclear Pictures of Europe

EUROPEANS by Jane Kramer, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 561 pp. $22.95

`EUROPEANS'' should be good. After all, it is by Jane Kramer, who writes with a compelling cadence matched by few other writers this decade. Jane Kramer, whose knowledge of Europe and its people is well researched and somewhat scholarly. Jane Kramer, who can dissect a Paris or a Kurt Waldheim - or her own Portuguese concierge.

``Europeans'' comprises more than 30 of Kramer's ``Letter from Europe'' pieces that have appeared in the New Yorker for the past 10 years.

But Kramer in hardback does not have the timely clout of Kramer in The New Yorker, and ``Europeans'' likely will be one of those seldom-cracked tomes readers squeeze into their bookshelves between Alan Bullock's ``Hitler, A Study in Tyranny'' and A.J.P. Taylor's ``The Origins of the Second World War.''

How many more times do we need to be reminded that Jean-Marie Le Pen is a racist or that Waldheim lied about his wartime activities? Kramer's profiles of these and other prominent Europeans now come off dated. It's a bit like reading the New York Times one week late: The articles still have insight and analysis, but the news has already been read, heard, and discussed elsewhere.

It is never clear why Kramer thinks readers would be interested, for example, in page after countless page of a person such as French novelist Emmanuel Bove. Kramer is a masterly writer, but she tends toward endless ruminations about sometimes inconsequential personalities. Her finely tuned descriptions of people and their mannerisms often seem pointless. Even her exquisite writing style cannot mask the fact that she often has not drawn clear conclusions.

Kramer is at her best when she focuses on cities. She chronicles the arrogance of Hamburg, takes a fresh look at the much-reported class problems of London, and uncovers the snobbish hypocrisy of Zurich. Although peppering essays on these cities with various personal profiles, she nevertheless establishes clear, concise themes, which make these city-based essays readable and informative. Such pieces do not appear dated. Unfortunately, these urban articles are the exceptions in ``Europeans.''

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