GOODWRITING by foreign authors can offer two kinds of satisfaction to the reader. First, there is the pleasure or challenge of an encounter with stimulating prose, a style, perhaps a theme of literary merit quite spart from the nationality of the person who created it: Art for art's sake. And second, there is the documentary quality to a foreigner's book, the chance to look inside a society as seen by one of its own.
In both respects, Yury Trifonov's trio of novellas, The Long Goodbye , is a substantial success. Trifonov is a Moscow writer, certainly one of the best in the Soviet Union and arguably among the better writers anywhere today. He is thoughtful and evocative, a stylist of some distinction in Russian and even, at times, in this translation.
Even more striking though is the setting of Trifonov's work, the mirror he holds up to Soviet life for us outsiders. There is as good a sense here as any I have seen of the texture of reality for Moscow's middle class, ordinary people in white collar jobs or what Russians call the Intelligentsia , theater folk and poetry translators.
Trifonov is not a political maverick in the way, say, that Alexander Solzhenitsyn is. For 25 years now, his writing has been officially published and subject therefore to all the controls and censorship that the Kremlin imposes. Invariably described by Soviets as controversial and harrassed by ideological criticism, Trifonov has nonetheless matured within the system.
It may seem surprising then that these novellas should be as penetrating as they are, so accurate in their atmospherics. The explanation can be found in Trifonov's skills, his subtlety, his focus on the problems of individuals, "the interlocking worlds of family, career and conscience," as Ellendea Proffer writes in her introduction. But Trifonov stops short of providing solutions or making some broad ideological point.
Trifonov is most definitely not alone as an accomplished Soviet - as distinct form dissident - Russian writer. There are others like Vasily Belov, the late Vasily Shukshin, Fazil Iskander. They are as popular with their reader constituency as are writers of similarly high quality in the United States.
Plainly, excellence can prevail over the censors behind desks and in writers' heads. Outsiders tend to forget, moreover, that the policeman is part of Russia's literary heritage. The 19th century greats - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol - all had to overcome restrictions imposed by the Czar; admittedly, however, without facing the stultifying guidelines of Marxist-Leminist dogma.
For reasons of fashion as well as the deep-seated American prejudice against cultural cops, books by Soviet writers who get published at home have a harder time gaining acceptance in the U.S. than those by dissidents. This book - Trifonov's first major appearance here - was issued in a small Harper & Row edition put together by Ardis, an Ann Arbor publisher that specializes in contemporary as well as historical Russian works. Little if any effort has gone into promotion. The cover and production are below par. It's not, I suspect, going to be easy to locate a copy. Pity.
Those who succeed will find the novellas - a format, incidentally, that is very popular in the USSR - wholly different in subject from one another. The first is called "The Exchange" (the same translation first appeared in an Ardis anthology several years ago). It concerns a couple's efforts to get a better apartment by persuading the husband's dying mother to move in with them. The exploitation of this unhappy woman, condemned by cancer but not yet aware of it, for personal benefit forms the core of a moral crisis.
Next comes "Taking Stock," a chronicle mainly of family tensions but also containing a poignant account of the fate of old religious account of the fate of old religious ikons, totems for the new Soviet middle classes. Here again, on almost every page Trifonov captures some piece of daily business - a visit with boring relatives, a supplicant's bid to place a ne'er-do-well son in school - and produces a telling portrait.
Lastly is "The Long Goodbye," the life of a Moscow actress, her loves, successes and frustrations. Her troupe gathers in an early scene for an evening of vodka and banter - and I am transported back to evenings with theater friends in Moscow, feeling the same gritty humannness of those occasions. Yury Trifonov gives us Russia, his slice at any rate, as it really is - for better or worse.