CONFESSIONAL writing is a tricky thing to pull off. No matter how articulately crafted, the outpouring of a tormented consciousness can still leave a reader cold - particularly if the author/confessor is not able to inspire within the reader some identification with, or sharing in, the search for redemption and revelation.
Raisa Orlova, a Russian intellectual now living in West Germany, runs smack into this problem in her book ''Memoirs.'' A once blindly enthusiastic Communist who resigned her party membership in 1980 - and was then stripped of her Soviet citizenship - Orlova is a woman who has struggled through an increasingly profound crisis of conscience for more than 20 years, asking herself, as she says in the book's introduction, ''What did you believe in? How could you have believed in THAT? What do you believe in today?''
These are the questions that propel this writer; her groping for the answers is what propels the book. The problem is that nothing really propels the reader - who is likely to be left feeling like the odd man out. Perhaps a fellow Soviet - maybe one of the many famous dissident writers Orlova knows - would be drawn into these memoirs and into the life of their author, to say, ''Yes, I have lived this struggle, too.'' There may even be Sovietologists who would find the book enlightening. But I can't imagine the average reader staying with ''Memoirs'' for more than a chapter or two.
The problem lies primarily in Orlova's highly personal, introspective observations about life in a society that already is almost a total enigma to most Americans. She offers the reader few, if any, keys for unlocking the Soviet mystery; in fact, she seems to assume that her audience starts out locked in with her. And there you have it, the pitfall of confessional writing.
This lack of access is frustrating. In a lesser writer, it would simply be grounds for indifference. But Orlova is such an obviously talented writer - and a probing thinker - that one quite frankly regrets her inability to share her struggle in more universal terms. As an employee of VOKS, the Soviet agency for international cultural relations, later as an editor of the Russian journal Foreign Literature, and ultimately as a dissident intellectual, Orlova took part in amazing times and companioned with extraordinary people. All too frequently - although perhaps understandably - she filters her world through such an intensely personal lens that the context for her struggles is virtually lost to the reader. There are a few notable exceptions, particularly her brief but moving sketches of Alexander Yashin, the poet, and Andrei Sakharov, the exiled scientist.
Perhaps it should not be too surprising that this book is so highly individualistic. After all, what Orlova is sorting through is the years she spent believing in the supremacy of the party, in the rightness of the collective. Perhaps it's only natural, then, that she now writes from the opposite extreme. Still, one hopes that her struggle will eventually lead her to a calmer ground - so that when she writes again, her individual search may help to inspire the broader ranks of all those who seek redemption from enslaving modes of thought.