BOOK REVIEW / Black comedy of grey matter: 'Lenin's Brain' - Tilman Spengler: Hamish Hamilton, 9.99 pounds

IN THE popular imagination, the bad, mad scientist dissects, transplants, compounds and synthesises in a bid for world domination. The good mad scientist behaves no less manically, but is driven by the purest altruism, a vision of universal peace and plenty. And then there is the scientist who is plain mad, buried so deep in arcane processes that the everyday world is no longer relevant. Dr Oskar Vogt, the pathologist who trims the contents of Vladimir Illych's cranium into thousands of transparently thin slices, has a scalpel in each of those three camps, until the uncertainty becomes irritating. Just why does Dr Vogt lust after brain tissue?

Tilman Spengler is a German historian of science who has turned to faction and the novel of ideas. Dr Vogt did indeed practise neurology in Berlin at the end of the last century, and his most famous client, Fritz Krupp, was the Kaiser's most prominent industrialist. Lenin's Brain begins in the fashionable spas of Austro-Hungarian Mitteleuropa, and ends as the Fuhrer is losing his grip on all fronts. For over 50 years, Dr Vogt pursues his search for the 'elite brain', taking research money from any available source. He is a ruthless vivisectionist, as most scientists of his day were. But he preys on people as well, ready to commit his patient Margarethe Krupp to an asylum, although she suffers from no more than nervous depression, if such action will preserve the reputation of her husband and protect Vogt's main source of funding - although Krupp's suicide after press accusations of immorality renders such un-Hippocratic conduct superfluous.

Vogt's wife, a French scientist whom he married with dreams that they would become a second pair of Curies, is increasingly sickened by his material ambition. This reaches an absurd peak when he collaborates with Captain Most of the War Ministry to seek money under the pretence of researching the canine psychology of military messenger dogs, with the collusion of the International Poodle Association and the Army Dog Institute. But the plan falls through, and an alternative scam for putative investigation of the mental life of carrier pigeons also fails, because airworthy pigeons are unavailable owing to war casualties.

That kind of comedy is rare here. So is the slapstick of assistants crashing head over heels, pulverising the minds of great men on the laboratory floor, or the soldiers in the military hospital who are given impromptu lectures on the brain structure of their dead and dissected comrades in the bizarre expection that this will encourage them to donate thier bodies to the greater scientific glory of the Reich if they don't recover.

Spengler prefers the conversational irony of the salon. This is at its most effective in the letters of Amanda von Alversleben, a governess Vogt seduced when he was treating the Krupps. Her accounts of Lenin at a Zurich soiree or of Budapest under Bela Kuri's revolutionary government in 1919, in long, faithful letters to Vogt, are the novel's wittiest, most informative passages.

The sweep of history is grand, but the problem is that Vogt's motivation, though relentless, is never sufficiently explored, which leaves an everwidening gap at the centre of the novel between the doctor's obsessions and objective reality. His search for the exact site of genius in the 'elite brain' sounds ideal for the eugenic promotion of the Master Race, but Vogt reacts to fascism only when it threatens to interrupt his work. And when he finally gets his hands on Lenin, his quest for the brain looks almost like an affectation.

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain