ONE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS in this novel cites Dostoevski's judgment on Russia, that it exists only for the purpose of teaching the world a lesson. The 20th century has confirmed the truth or half-truth of that judgment; it is possible to see the Soviet Union as a great, icy laboratory of the spirit in which the most advanced experiments, idealistically conceived, have gone wrong and unleashed deadly viruses. One can also see it as a monastic prison, whose very rigor and inflexibility have a certain appeal for intellectuals of the licentious West with messed-up personal lives. Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that she felt envious of people in the West, who had time and energy for private unhappiness, such as divorce; and Solzhenitsyn, in his memoir The Oak and the Calf, dismisses his broken marriage in a single paragraph, as a matter of small importance compared with the struggle, the cause of freedom. We man envy them their unfreedom: It might, we dream, bring order to our lives.

The three central characters of World Without End are drawn to spend a vacation in the Soviet Union by some such dream. Friends and occasionally lovers from their adolescence, they have reached middle age without discovering who they are, and they are desperate to give some point to the last third of their lives. Edmund, once a promising painter, of Russian origin, has abandoned his art for the establishment success of becoming a distinguished art historian at Berkeley; profoundly narcissistic, he is -- in a telling phrase -- a postgraduate student of himself. Claire, burdened by her wealthy and cultivated upbringing in New England, has a distrait yearning to be good; in her troubled search for that goal, she espouses good causes, a clean-limbed husband, motherhood, and the Church -- withdrawing for a while into a nunnery. The more sensual Sophie has fallen into material success and glamour, as a star television newscaster, but is conscious of hollowness and loneliness. They are all three victims of a libertarian and valueless society. Claire and Sophie flutter like moths around Edmund's egoistic flame, since even a lapsed artist embodies some kind of spirituality.

The preciousness of their friendship is made much of; it is also precious in a less favorable sense. They address each other by such terms as "Clair de Lune," "Eddem," "Sofka." I would carefully avoid them at a cocktail party, but they are well-drawn, especially Edmund. The opening chapter sets them on their Russian holiday; then their interwoven histories are related through a series of lengthy flashbacks. This technique may have been unavoidable, but by removing the element of uncertainty and surprise -- what will happen to them? -- it weakens the narrative interest.

The book moves slowly, heavy with minute particulars. This in time exercises its own fascination; du Plessix Gray's strength lies in her exacting and acute attention to detail. One of the best passages describes the death of Edmund's cat, egregiously but convincingly named Vico: "In the last days Vico's eyes remain closed for long moments of time, he opened his eyes in a new way, not upon the call of a voice or the din of conversation which John brought with him but as though to simply look at the room for a moment before closing his eyes again; to remember the room better or simply to see that it was still there." This is tenderly and truthfully observed, and the straightforward style catches the truth. But why "moments of time?" Are there any others? And the split infinitive, "to simply look," irritates: a minor grammatical irritation which recurs throughout the book.

The author writes quite badly, in fact, much of the time. Edmund is not simply short, he is "short of stature"; Claire does not utter a terse phrase, it is both terse and pithy. More damaging is a novelettish self-indulgence: "She trembled with a soft undulating motion . . ." Every noun, it sometimes seems, must have its adjective; page one has, among many others, fleeting, luminous, romantic, scintillating, floating, nascent, tremulous and fiery. Though at times the characters are observed with irony, there is in general not enough distance between them and the author; their conversational style echoes du Plessix Gray's authorial style, even to the split infinitives.

Yet World Without End has an admirable "plenitude" (a favorite word), and is clearly the work of a richly talented writer. Her technique has some way to go before it catches up with her vision and her intelligence. The book is struggling with an important subject: the conflict within each of us between the psychological hungers symbolized by America and Russia -- individualism and brotherhood, anarchy and order. It is no small achievement to have explored interestingly one of the most crucial dilemmas of our age. I am not sure what Edmund, Claire and Sophie find in Russia; nor, I think, are they. They are distressed at a rock concert to discover that the worst aspects of Western life, not the best, are being imported; yet, when they leave to return to America, they feel they will miss the "massive spirituality which continues to thrive in its people like random flowers thrusting through cement." They come home -- as Catholic invalids often do from Lourdes -- no better, but feeling that they are.