IN historical - as distinct from natural or sidereal - time, a year is seldom a neatly contained unit. Perhaps it's the tension between the closure of the natural year and the unfinished business of history that challenges some writers to take a year from history and extract the history bottled up in that year. It can be anything from an exercise in nostalgia to an effort to examine a turning point in time. Poised between the lure of nostalgia and the demands of history, Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs (no relation to the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, he hastens to assure his readers) warns of the dangers of ``an uncritical and, therefore, unhistorical nostalgia'' in his intensely nostalgic, but by no means uncritical Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 255 pp., illustrated, $20.95). Lukacs has chosen this date because he feels the city was never more truly itself than at that time: cosmopolitan, yet in touch with the countryside, sophisticated, yet innocent of Viennese-style ``decadence.''
The smaller, more conservative, largely German-speaking city of Buda on the hilly western bank of the Danube and the more dynamic Magyar and Jewish city of Pest on the bank stretching eastward onto the Hungarian plain united only in 1873 to form the city of Budapest. But within the last quarter of the 19th century, the population of the city tripled. Levels of literacy and standards of education rose.
A brilliant new generation flourished in the milieu of ``coffee house culture.'' Some were gifted writers, like Gyula Krudy, little known beyond Hungary. (Magyar is related to no other European language except Finnish.) Others were scientists, musicians, filmmakers, and internationally known writers like Ferenc Molnar and Arthur Koestler, many of whom emigrated.
Evocative, insightful, opinionated, this portrait of a city at its prime examines everything from climate and cuisine to politics and national character. The poignant last chapter looks ahead to the vicissitudes of Budapest's troubled history in the 20th century.
Lukacs considers it Hungary's tragedy that ``the massive sight of Germany blocked other, more substantial views of the West'' for Hungarians trying to decide whether Germany or France represented the more vital stream of European culture.
A similar dilemma confronted young Martha Dodd, daughter of the American ambassador to Germany in 1933, the fateful year that Hitler came to power. Philip Metcalfe's 1933 (Permanent Press, Sag Harbor, N.Y., 316 pp., illustrated, $21.95) is an intriguing and unusual attempt to recapture a crucial moment in history as seen through the eyes of five contemporaries: Martha Dodd and her father, William; Putzi Hanfstaengl, the Harvard-educated Nazi in charge of relations with the foreign press; Bella Fromm, a German Jewish society columnist; and Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo.
Drawing on a variety of sources - personal papers, memoirs, and news articles - Metcalfe fashions a novelistic narrative that makes for fluent reading but inevitably generates uneasiness about the methodology, despite copious footnotes. In choosing these five well-placed, well-connected personages, Metcalfe highlights the mechanisms people use to incorporate radical change, in this case, radical evil, into the ebb and flow of daily life.
William K. Klingaman has made a specialty of the single-year format. His ``1919: The Year Our World Began,'' won praise for its lively portrayal of the order that emerged in the wake of World War I. He's currently at work on a book about 1929. In 1941: Our Lives in a World on the Edge (Harper & Row, New York, 516 pp., illustrated, $24.95), he applies his finely honed technique to the year that would mark a turning point in the direction of World War II. Klingaman has an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the memorable quote, and his sense of what is significant extends from large things - like lend-lease and Pearl Harbor - to small - like the popularity of the comicbook hero Superman. Klingaman's ``1941'' has the narrative drive of good popular history as well as the richly detailed texture of nostalgia.
As its title suggests, America 1941: A Nation at the Crossroads, by Ross Gregory (Free Press, New York, 339 pp., illustrated, $22.95), concentrates more exclusively on the United States than Klingaman's book (which, though focusing on America, maintains a more global perspective).
``Less a diplomatic history than a study of Americans reacting to great events ... less a discussion of religious philosophers than of people practicing their faith, less a story of generals than of privates'' is how its author, a professor of history at Western Michigan University, describes it.
Comparisons being inevitable, it must be said that this ``1941'' is less ambitious than Klingaman's and written with less panache. But the book is still a useful and interesting look at the attitudes of ``average'' Americans at a transitional point in their country's history.
It's not hard to guess why Charles Kaiser, now a journalist, then a Columbia freshman and volunteer in Eugene McCarthy's campaign, chose to revisit the '60s. His 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 306 pp., illustrated, $19.95) is clearly an attempt to recapture a kind of youthful rapture.
Kaiser's powerful nostalgia for '60s rock music is balanced by a scrupulous concern for historical accuracy in his discussion of the Vietnam war and the antiwar movement at home. From the excitement of McCarthy's New Hampshire upset to the shock of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Kaiser conveys the emotional intensity of that year without losing his objectivity about political infighting, misleading reporting of the war, or the built-in limitations of a generation that ``dressed wildly, danced violently,'' embraced drugs and sex, and then, ``in roughly the same proportion as their parents ... continued to vote Republican.''