22 MAY 1964, Page 24

Lost Victories

Montenegro. By Milovan Djilas. Translated by Kenneth Johnstone. (Methuen, 25s.) Convention. By Fletcher Knebel and Charles Rockliff, 21s.) The Late Breakfasters. By Robert Aickman. (Gollancz, 21s.).

Montenegro is not a successful book. Milovan Djilas describes the historical evolution of Montenegro and its eventual inclusion with Serbia and Hercegovina into the State of Yugo- slavia. But the State at all times is empty. In the first of the three sections, 'The Battle,' which describes the battle of Mojkovac where the Montenegrins capitulate to the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, several characters, who are plainly intended to carry weight, are introduced. But they are none of them more than vague in outline. Sedar Jenko 'was the only great commander of the Montenegrin army in two wars.' The novelist wishes to present some of that greatness. But for a technique of montage to be effective the moments chosen must be pregnant and particular. They're neither in this opening section. If you 'compare the battle of Mojkovac with the battle of Borodino in War and Peace (with which Montenegro invites com- parison in its epic sections) the paucity of both the human and the geographical information in Djilas's novel becomes very clear. There is very little detail, consequently very little distinctive- ness. One learns nothing of the people involved and very little about the way the battle was fought. Though, for a man in prison without recourse, presumably, to an historical library and relying only on memory, the achievement is considerable.

The second section, 'The Gallows,' which is a short novel in itself, is very fine. Three repre- sentative figures, a student of philosophy, a captain of the Montenegrin army and an old peasant, are in prison condemned to death. The three characters have a distinctive presence, the movement of their thought is surprising, •change- able; the decisions. the student and the officer reach after they have been offered bribes seem the result of the arguments and are necessary and moving. It is clear that Djilas is writing what he knows about here. There is more space and variety inside this narrow prison than there is in all the extensive historical panorama offered outside it. Compare 'The Gallows' with Le Mur. Djilas has greater clarity than Sartre. The action of 'The Gallows' is devised in an investigative way. You feel as though you've learned some- thing about the intellectual resourcefulness of men, consequently something about their dignity. Sartre's story seems pale and wilted beside this.

The two American books, Convention and The Speculators, have in common at least a world full of'things which the authors relish. It is pleas- ing to read novels which concern themselves with this world. Neither book makes any attempt to talk metaphysics. They are documentary in intention. Largeness of view must depend on experienced detail otherwise it's wind. One begins to see the virtues of Mr. Gradgrind here, with Sartre in this new cast, playing Sissy Jupe.

Convention is what it says it is. A book about the machination behind the scenes in electing a candidate as the Republican nominee for 'the Presidential election. The two authors are interested in the corrupt devices, which include forged tickets for the spectators' gallery, black- mail exerted on delegates by crooked trade union

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leaders, a secret computer called Oscar which stores the necessary information. At first sight the book looks like a criticism of the American system. George Manchester makes a speech attacking unnecessary defence projects. The dele- gates who have a vested interest in the armaments Industry switch their allegiance. It looks as if a Marxist criticism is being levelled. But democracy triumphs in the -end. Manchester's daughter-in- law starts a circular letter and the people speak out for peace. In spite of this failure of nerve, however,. the book is extremely interesting to read.

The Speculators takes you to another pinnacle of power. From the White House to Wall Street and a seat on the Stock Exchange. George Morgenstern breaks loose from an honest but

undistinguished life selling stocks for customers to trading in it himself, and makes several million. The interest is in the know-how exhibited by the author, who speaks, it appears, from experience. The human situation is derisory. Morgenstern loses his integrity and innocence, qualities manifested in his affair with Freya, a girl in a bookshop, and his wife falls back in love with him, quite simply, in proportion to his increased income. The moral issues that the author pre- tends to raise are not faced. He isn't interested in them. All there is is the seductive exhilaration in making money and gaining power. But I stayed up all night reading it, feeling rich. The Late Breakfasters is a piece of English chic humour, crisply written I suppose, trivial, with a certain, limited interest in a lesbian affair