A Review of dear Petrov by Susan Tepper


dear Petrov, Susan Tepper’s richly poetic novel told in episodic units, takes place in the nineteenth century, a time when, thanks to bombardment from every side with this sentiment, even many women would have agreed with Lord Byron’s epigraph: “Love is of man’s life a thing apart; ’tis woman’s whole existence.” 

We never know the narrator’s name but we are fully privy to her tortured soul as she waits for Petrov, her soldier lover. We are with her as she experiences a brutish life with him: she nurtures one bag of grain, remembers a blustering stomping man who goes to bed in his boots, buries a miscarried child (“smaller than my palm”), alone. 

Only when he comes is there plenty, sometimes provided by him, sometimes procured for him in hidden ways:  “Where do you suppose I found the money to buy succulent food for our table. How do you imagine a woman in such circumstances acquires money. But then you do not imagine. Mostly you are gone with your belly full of meat and drink.”

Unrequited love is, of course, nothing new.  Most of us have suffered from that to some degree in our journey from adolescence to adulthood, and most of us come to terms with what turns out to be a passing fancy, a mismatch of ideals, an absence of the requisite pheromones.  But once in a while, whispered about, confessed, written about, it’s something more malevolent, at least to the one who loves.  To the other, it is sport.  

This is the province of the daemon lover, whether supernatural or only a good male child of the culture, and there is good reason to believe that this is the case with Petrov, beloved of a woman who seems to accept every hardship and indignity of love without hatred or even resentment, only with a resolution to endure, to prepare more food (for him) although exhausted, make the most of inadequate clothing. and to do it all with fire and dedication.

Tepper’s exposition of the daemon lover genre demonstrates the requisite patriarchal control of women by restricting their access to the means of economic self-sufficiency.  Sadly, this narrative in western culture has usually meant that women are convinced it is natural starve and shiver in the bonds of love while waiting for the lover to supply her with everything she needs, from food and warmth to love. Occasionally Petrov returns and sometimes dumps a sack full of money on a table. “I’ve always deferred to you,” she says and wonders, “Why should a man believe he owns a woman?”

Her work joins that of Elizabeth Bowen (“The Demon Lover”), Shirley Jackson (“The Daemon Lover”), Christina Rossetti (“Goblin Market”), and the authors of many Gothic romances in writing about a woman obsessed with a lover who spurns her, even though modern narratives, after letting the lover brood, shout, and strut, often subvert the genre, letting the misunderstood lover return to true love, a woman, and a rose-covered cottage.  

Dr. Chiyo Nakagama, in her paper Fears of the Demon Lover: Female Paranoia in the Demon Lover Stories by Elizabeth Bowen and Shirley Jackson, traces modern fascination with demon lover narratives to a Scottish folk ballad, “The Daemon Lover.”  Toni Reed writes, in her book Demon-Lovers and Their Victims in British Fiction, “The ballad is found in the Scottish Border region … and is a distilled version of a Gothic romance about obsessive love and hate, for the woman in the ballad is just as controlled, just as victimized as the terrified women in Gothic novels.”  Nakagawa says, “In the Gothic, the demon lover figure appears as the hero-villain, variously called the descendant of Milton’s Satan, Byronic hero, or “homme fatal,” as a character who drives the story as a thriller as well as a romance.” 

There are conventions. 

First the demon lover must cause the woman to fall in love; then he must leave her and life loses all savor.  When Petrov first meets the narrator, he makes her happy, opens her eyes to new experiences:  “Before you knew what you were saying you took me into the trees to hear the special birdsong. I tried and listened but that day the birds were lost or hiding.” Like the young girl in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (an interesting variant of a demon lover story), after the goblins have seduced her and given her the luscious, juice-laden fruit, they take away the gift of vision, and never again is she able to see the goblin men:  “Her hair grew thin and grey; /She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/To swift decay and burn Her fire away . . . “

In Jackson’s story, after filling her day with non-stop busywork preparing for her wedding day, she (the story never gives us her name, even as we never know the name of Petrov’s lover—these heroines are Everywomen) goes to his apartment: “She knew there was someone inside the other apartment, because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.” 

When the demon lover makes his final exit, in one way or another, he doesn’t return.

In her analysis of this story (as well as the story “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen), Chiho Nakagawa notes,  “Her lover, James Harris seems to appear and disappear at will, true to the name of the demon lover. He comes out to this world just to give her a temporary bliss so that he can bring her enduring agony and humiliation.” Tepper’s Petrov also appears on his own schedule, is either kind or brutal (increasingly so as time goes on) and then disappears, leaving the agonized narrator to yearn after him and the bursting, vital life he brings with him.

Dr. Nakagawa goes on to note “I argue that the demon lover stories, a variation of erotomanic delusions, express a critique of the patriarchal society that exposes women to perpetual threats that are represented ambiguously in the form of demon lovers. Jackson’s story in particular shows that fears of the demon lover, however supernatural he may appear to be, are in fact of this world. … the fears and threats of the demon lover present themselves in a developed form that illuminates systematic controls of women.  I will argue that those stories show a critique of the system in which women are exposed to the perpetual threats embodied by demon lovers.” (emphasis mine)

In dear Petrov, the narator is well aware of the threats of being unloved, abandoned, poor, cold and hungry, with only a horse for companionship.  Apart from the hinted-at prostitution, her access to the necessities of life can come only through her relationship to Petrov, who as a male has access to work and money, who can bring her a sack of sweets whereas she can only provide a mash of milk and weeds for him.

Most demon lovers are male.  However, lest I be accused of being biased in my exposition of this interesting phenomenon, I would like to call your attention to one of the most well-known examples of betrayed love in John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”  In this reversed poetic version of the myth (for the demon lover stories satisfy the classic requirements for myth: the sum of all stories of a particular type within a cultural system), a knight-at-arms is lingering beside a lonely lake.  While he was in the favor of the faerie woman, living was easy: “She found me roots of relish sweet,/And honey wild, and manna-dew,/And sure in language strange she said—/‘I love thee true’.”

However, when the honeymoon was over, it was a different story: “And I awoke and found me here,/ On the cold hill’s side./And this is why I sojourn here,/Alone and palely loitering,/Though the sedge is withered from the lake,/And no birds sing.’  Our narrator says, “I have watched the summer sun turn to a dark globe. Yet still you keep away. Our rooms, once bright, are the desolate chambers of a single mourner. Like the sun, I have taken to wearing black.” Both narrators are experiencing a form of life in death.

At first, we may tend not to recognize dear Petrov as a demon lover narrative because the prototype is so embedded in gender stereotypes of our culture, especially when we are reading a narrative set in a previous period, dear Petrov’s nineteenth-century Russia.  Men are active, providers, soldiers.  They have more access to the world’s supply of money, which means food, clothing, warmth and happiness.  But Tepper has added a new arrow to the quiver full of demon lover narratives, an enduring literary form in our culture, and thus added to the myth.

All this is expressed in her gorgeous flow of language and firm control of the elements of the narrative.  It’s easy to get caught up in this tale and think, “Woman, shake yourself up and get away from that man.” Not so easy nowadays and almost impossible in nineteenth century Russia.  

Petrov was in control, whether we accept him as a real figure or as a construct of the narrator’s desires.  She was unable to desire anything other than the male role rodel her culture and time gave her and that was of a woman with access to food, clothing, warmth and happiness only through the figure of a male provider while she hugged her all-devouring, unrequited love.  Without that, she was doomed, as was the knight-in-arms, to spend her life sojourning in the countryside, in her vast ruined home, alone and palely loitering.  With no birdsong.

1 comment:

  1. Tree, this is possibly the most captivating and insightful review I've ever read, and I'm thrilled that it centers around my book 'dear Petrov'. It has given me a lot to think about.
    Like they say: the author is the last to know.
    Thank you for giving the book so much of your thought-time.