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.