ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- There is a house on a hill in Michigan. Huge porches, circular driveway, 25 rooms, a long view out to the woods. When it was known as the Ann Arbor Country Club, golfers used to scrape the sod from their cleats and take a tall gin out to the porch to watch the sun go down. Now the house is known as Ardis Publishers, and there is not a writer, artist or scholar in the Soviet Union who does not know it as a citadel of Russian literature.
Started as a hobby in 1971 by Carl and Ellendea Proffer, a blithe young academic couple whose innocence and enthusiasm endeared them to many Russian intellectuals, Ardis is responsible for as many genuine publishing triumphs as most of the huge commercial houses in Manhattan. Ardis has two roles: publishing works in Russian that the Soviet Union has ignored or suppressed and publishing English translations of works that American publishing houses find lacking in commercial appeal.
Through the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko years, when the Soviet regime's attitude toward its own best literary minds seemed scarcely more enlightened than it was under Stalin, Ardis rediscovered and published in Russian classics ignored in the Soviet Union, such as Osip Mandelstam's "Stone" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." Ardis published and even housed exiles, such as poet Joseph Brodsky and novelist Vassily Aksyonov. And it discovered young talents in the U.S.S.R., such as Sasha Sokolov -- talents that might otherwise have been crushed by the boot of neglect.
"From the point of view of Russian literature, the existence of this house is the second great event in literature, after the invention of the press," says Brodsky, last year's winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Brodsky, who came to live with the Proffers after fleeing the Soviet Union in 1972, says "Carl and Ellendea treated me in a way I can't hope to repay."
Ardis makes most of its money on the translations -- its anthologies of modern Russian writers are used in college courses around the country -- but, says Ellendea Proffer, "our mission, the reason we may be remembered in Heaven for adding to the culture, is what we do in Russian and for Russians." At least one-third of Ardis' Russian-language volumes end up in the Soviet Union with the help of students, tourists and diplomats.
Ardis' books are everywhere in Moscow. If one were to visit a literate Russian friend and find a Russian-language edition of one of Nabokov's novels on his shelf, a closer inspection would inevitably reveal Ardis' horse-and-buggy symbol on the spine. Publishing the great trilingual lepidopterist's novels for Russian-speaking audiences is one of the main reasons Ardis is so well known in Russia. Ardis, not coincidentally, is the name of the great estate in Nabokov's novel "Ada."
The Proffers turned their hobby into an ongoing mission and worked as a team until 1984, when Carl died of cancer at 46. Shortly before his death, he wrote for The Washington Post a long account of his experimental treatments at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. A former college basketball player and a passionate Nabokov scholar, Carl Proffer, says Aksyonov, "made the salvation of a humiliated and much maligned literature a cause to live by."
These days Ellendea, 43, runs the show. She is a woman of keen intelligence, terrific gossip. Around 15 people can be working in the basement on a given day -- translating, proofreading, typesetting on the computers, dealing with the incessant demands of writers from Alabama to Alma-Ata -- but she is always the center of attention.
"After Carl died all our Russian friends were terrified of one thing: that I'd marry a Russian," she says. "See, in the typical Russian way, they figure that the man would take over and only one school of literature would be heard from. They thank God now that I've got a French boyfriend."
While Proffer's friends see Ardis in heroic terms, it would be understating things to say the Soviet government has not shared this view. After the Proffers published in Russian an uncensored anthology edited by Aksyonov and other writers in Moscow, the official Soviet weekly Literary Gazette called Ardis "an anti-Soviet bake shop."
Ardis lives by a slogan of its own. It once issued a T-shirt with a logo reading "Russian literature is better than sex."
At the end of the '60s, when Carl and Ellendea Proffer began visiting the Soviet Union and various writers, they knew little about Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov or other heirs to the 19th-century tradition of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. They were innocents abroad.
"Carl was already teaching at Michigan and I was a graduate student studying Bulgakov, but we hardly knew anything. There just wasn't much around you could read or that they taught in courses. I'd read one poem by Brodsky. The 20th century stopped in 1928."
The greatest influence on them was the "widows of Russia," the women who had been married to the authors of the classics written in the '20s and '30s. The Proffers called on these elderly widows, sat in their miserable kitchens or regal living rooms (depending on whether the author had been poorly or well regarded by the regime), drank their tea and heard them talk of an extraordinary culture embattled by its leaders.
The most influential of the widows was Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose husband Osip had been killed in Stalin's camps. Nadezhda Mandelstam knew everyone from the Silver Age of the '20s -- Isaac Babel, Akhmatova, Nikolay Bukharin -- and her memoirs about that era, "Hope Against Hope" and "Hope Abandoned," are terrifying, intelligent accounts of human beings under persecution. In their way, her memoirs stand with Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" as guides to the understanding of the Stalin era.
"Nadezhda Mandelstam gave us her whole world," Proffer says. "She started it for us." Mandelstam lived in a depressing apartment near the trolley tracks in the Cheremushkinski, or "Bird Cherry," area of Moscow. When the Proffers first called on her in 1969, Carl writes in his memoirs "The Widows of Russia," there was "a long wait, then a shuffling of feet, a partial unlocking, a voice asking us to identify ourselves and then a final unlocking."
Mandelstam had lived for years in internal exile and in dowdy communal apartments, so while this place seemed miserable to the Proffers, Mandelstam herself was pleased at least to have a room of her own. She chain-smoked Belomor, a brand named for the White Sea canal that Stalin had built in the '30s with slave labor. She called the tobacco dung "from burial mounds." Her irreverence stretched to every topic, as did her brilliance. The Proffers -- who would soon be known simply as "the kids" to dozens of grateful Soviet writers -- were enthralled.
"We got a sense from her of a living culture, of generations passing things on and a regime trying to stamp them out," Ellendea Proffer says. "The continuity of a culture is a moving thing, and we became receptacles. Mandelstam propagandized us, she worked on us emotionally."
What was strange was the way Mandelstam took to the Proffers. They were not established critics, they were not from Russian backgrounds but, says Proffer. "We had an attitude. And the attitude was 'We're barbarians and we know your language.' We weren't intimidated. To us a writer was just a person who writes. In Russia a writer is writer. But we quickly found out that there were so many writers who were just jerks. Like Solzhenitsyn. He's a jerk, but he's a great figure. We were a novelty and we were just so damn interested."
Mandelstam, in a sense, created Ardis. "Once we were getting ready to leave her place," says Proffer, "and she said, 'Oh, I see it already. You have the Russian disease. You'll be back.' "
Ardis began on the strength of a $3,000 loan from Carl's parents. The Proffers bought an IBM composing machine to run in the basement and set about looking for manuscripts. Ellendea wanted to publish a play by Bulgakov, "Zoya's Apartment," and Osip Mandelstam's first book, "Stone," which was printed in a run of 500 copies in 1913 and then went out of print. The Proffers also had the idea to start a "thick journal" to be called the Russian Literature Triquarterly modeled on the Russian journals of the 19th century.
One of the Proffers' critical decisions then was to steer clear of the Central Intelligence Agency. Several Western journals and publishing houses that print Russian-language material get direct or indirect funding from the CIA -- "which is not a bad use of their money, I must admit," Proffer says. Nevertheless, she says, they wanted to avoid government involvement.
There were simple reasons for Ardis' early success. "Carl could type 90 words per minute," Proffer says. "That was critical to our early development."
The most ambitious early project was printing Nabokov's novels in Russian. An e'migre' to Europe and later to America, Nabokov had long since won a huge audience in the West. But the Soviet Union resisted his dancing genius. They would not publish him. And since Nabokov began writing in English in midcareer, books such as "Lolita" and "Pnin" were obscure, except as titles, inside Russia. The Proffers proposed commissioning translations of the English novels.
"We visited Nabokov in Montreaux and we brought him messages from Russia," Proffer says. "He was touched, because he had thought he had lost touch. He was amazed that he had so many readers." The Proffers got Nabokov's blessing for their project.
Since then Ardis has developed a backlist of 275 titles, around 60 percent of them in English. This year it plans to publish 25 books. As for the printing run on Ardis' "bestsellers," Proffer will only laugh. "That's the one thing I ain't gonna give you. Because then you'll tell how many copies Stephen King sells and we'll look like jerks!"
Over the years, the Proffers developed a firm esthetic. Soviet literary circles and e'migre' groups are highly politicized. X still won't talk to Y because of what he may have thought about Z in the '40s. The Proffers decided they could not play that game and have always published writers who could not stand one another. Indeed, they watched a painful row develop between Brodsky and Aksyonov.
Moreover, the Proffers, as students of Nabokov, were not especially interested in ideological works if they find the "art part" lacking. They turned down Vasily Grossman's "Life and Fate," a documentary novel about World War II, because they felt it was more journalism than art. "We'd never publish something like 'Children of the Arbat.' It's not literature. It's sweet, but it's like 'Whatever Happened to the Class of '55?'
"We tend toward the purely literary, the liberal," Proffer says. "We're not ideological. It was hard for us always to be taking a political stand because it's not our culture. In Russia reading Pushkin can still be a political revelation. Oftentimes the truth about an era can be told in literature. And that's especially true in Russia, where there is no real free journalism."
The Proffers discovered just how different they were culturally from their friends in Russia when, in 1971, they asked every literary person they knew if they believed in freedom of the press. According to Proffer, "They'd always say, sure, except for the Maoist press or the Trotskyite press or some other group. There was no mystery why there is no freedom of the press there and never will be. Countries have a certain tradition and a psychology."
They also discovered a certain puritanism among Russian intellectuals. "Even Nadezhda Mandelstam, who knew so much and was so heroic, said ' "Lolita" is a disgusting book.' She figured Nabokov must have known about such things -- having affairs with little girls -- in order to write about them. When our edition of 'Lolita' came out, people in Moscow would get it and read it but they'd hide it somewhere. They felt a little guilty. The novel by Nabokov that Russians still like best is 'The Gift,' " which Nabokov wrote in Russian.
It was clear from the start that the Proffers would print the works of neglected authors, such as Andrei Platonov ("The Foundation Pit"), and even a bit of fun, such as a Russian translation of Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park."
But literature sometimes comes to Ann Arbor in strange ways. In 1976, the Proffers received a package in the mail postmarked Vienna. The manuscript inside was a mess, but there was brilliance in it. The story of a Russian who had been in a school for the mentally ill, Sasha Sokolov's "A School for Fools" was, in both form and subject, too dangerous for publication in the Soviet Union.
Ardis' popularity in the Soviet Union was more than evident at the Moscow international book fair last autumn. Glasnost enabled Ardis to return to the fair after years of absence, but the limits of glasnost also made themselves known. Officials confiscated books by Aksyonov and other unsanctioned voices.
The KGB has been a nuisance at events such as the fair, but it has also been instrumental in the circulation of Ardis' books in the Soviet Union, Proffer says. "Even if they confiscate something, the books inevitably get sold on the black market or wind up in the hands of higher-ups," she says. "They don't get destroyed."
The Russians at Ardis' booth at the fair seemed to care little for official literary criticism. A young couple came to the booth every day to copy by hand Brodsky's latest poems. One man proved his devotion to Ardis and Nabokov by reciting the novel "Lolita" by heart.
Perhaps no one showed his gratitude to the publishing house this year more than Mikhail Gorbachev himself when he met with intellectuals during the summit in Washington. Greeting Princeton University Prof. Stephen Cohen, Gorbachev complimented him on his biography of Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, who was killed in Stalin's purges. Gorbachev does not know English and Ardis published the only Russian-language edition of "Bukharin."
In Moscow, Proffer discovered a kind of tentative euphoria about the current decision to release such works as Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" and Anna Akhmatova's "Requiem." In fact, those books are capturing more interest, she says, than Solzhenitsyn's latest work, which still must be smuggled into the country. "No one was reading 'The Red Wheel,' " she says. "That's because it's boring. It's literature for an artillery captain. Solzhenitsyn is rewriting history and he's not all that careful. 'The Gulag' was something else, because he collected eyewitness accounts.
"Let's face it, most of Russia is watching soccer and figure skating and reading junk, trashy newspaper stuff in Roman Gazeta, Harold Robbins-type stuff. The book everybody always wanted in Russia was 'The Three Musketeers.' They need plot and adventure in their literature and they never get it. An Agatha Christie novel is sometimes the greatest gift you can give. So what does that say? It says to me that a literate public is different from a cultured public. In France they respect writers, but do they read them?"
So far, Proffer sees glasnost as a "reanimation" of familiar names. Only a few young writers, such as the short-story writer Tatyana Tolstaya, have excited her.
"People need time," she says. "The conditions under Brezhnev were terrible. Not many people now want to send us stuff at the moment. They want to see how things come down. The lack of clarity is paralyzing a lot of people. It's like they're all asking, 'Do you mean it? Do you mean it?' Glasnost, if it continues, is going to take away some of our writers. And that's great. But," she says smiling, "they'll always need us."