The past shapes the present – they teach us that in schools and universities. (Shapes? Infiltrates, more like; imbues, infuses.) This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the beating heart of the present. So, how to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past – ours, our family’s, our culture’s – wields in the present?
Stories are not enough, even though they are essential. And books about history, books of psychology – the best of them take us closer, but still not close enough.
Maria Tumarkin's Axiomatic is a boundary-shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation. It takes as its starting point five axioms:
‘Time Heals All Wounds’
‘History Repeats Itself…’
‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’
‘Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I’ll Give You the Woman’
‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice’
These beliefs—or intuitions—about the role the past plays in our present are often evoked as if they are timeless and self-evident truths. It is precisely because they are neither, yet still we are persuaded by them, that they tell us a great deal about the forces that shape our culture and the way we live.
Axiomatic is Tumarkin's fourth book of non-fiction, and her most pioneering. Her three previous books, Otherland (2010), Courage (2007), and Traumascapes (2005), have each and all been critically acclaimed and shortlisted for major prizes.
More than seven full and long years in the making, and utilising her time as a Sidney Myer Creative Fellow, Axiomatic actively seeks to reset the non-fiction form in Australia.
LENGTH: 256 pp.
PUBLICATION DATE: May 2018
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Tumarkin is a writer and cultural historian. Her latest book Axiomatic won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, was longlisted for the Australian Indie Book Awards, and now has publishers in the United States and United Kingdom. Maria is also the author of three other acclaimed books of ideas: Traumascapes, Courage, and Otherland. Tumarkin’s essays have appeared in several editions of The Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Meanjin, The Monthly, Sydney Review of Books, The Age, The Australian, and Inside Story. Tumarkin is involved in wide-ranging artistic collaborations with visual artists, theatre makers and audio designers. She was a 2013–14 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow in humanities and she teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.
PRAISE FOR AXIOMATIC
“Maria Tumarkin writes of difficult topics with utmost integrity. Axiomatic is a dark gift: heartfelt, painful, full of sorrowful compassion. From schools, courtrooms, prisons, refugee camps, Soviet spaces and more personal inner life, come stories that break open the silence of suicide and the mystery of spirited persistence.”
“A brilliant kaleidoscope of arresting observations on suffering and innocence in modern times, Axiomatic is by turns illuminating, infuriating, engrossing and even amusing. I feel ambushed.”
“the work of a virtuoso, someone who has relentlessly honed her ability to make ideas progress rapidly through sentences, using an order and style that she has innovated, such that the path to a reader’s enlightenment is steep and narrow but clearly marked. Like Maggie Nelson’s, Tumarkin’s is the kind of writing that makes much creative nonfiction seem clumsy and rudimentary, as if everyone else is writing way too many words about smaller, pettier ideas.”
Katharine Coldiron, The Believer
“As a writer she pushes at the edges, and then pushes further; she wants to shout, and sometimes she does. Axiomatic is a bracing ride. At its heart is the big question of the past and its traumas. How do they play out? Where does trauma begin? In history? Genes? Family? Society? Is comfort to be found in the familiar truisms we’re so quick to roll out?”
Drusilla Modjeska, Inside Story
“Everyone is looking for the next Helen Garner and Maria Tumarkin shares with Garner a gimlet eye for the flaws in official systems, along with a fascination for the narratives nested in everyday lives. Axiomatic’s symphonic structure, however, recalls Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist and Nobel Laureate. She is another for whom reality attracts like a magnet, who has made a career out of appropriating and braiding voices and documents, seeing the world as a chorus and a collage. With this remarkable, wild, risk-laden book, Tumarkin has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as both of them.”
The Saturday Paper
“Axiomatic is a series of open-ended essays about different people, as well as Tumarkin’s own intense experiences of love and friendship. Consoling pieties do not interest her. There is no resolution, no comfort. It is a bleak view of the world, but for many people, including Tumarkin’s friend Vera, 'That’s how it goes.' This happened. That happened. I am here. You are here. Lucky for us Tumarkin is here, too. Trying.”
Helen Elliott, The Monthly
“Again and again in Axiomatic, Tumarkin confronts the meagreness of the written word in the face of trauma as she muses on her inability to write the text she had intended ("I was working on this book and a year passed, then two, and two more …"). Yet again and again, she herself demonstrates what literary prose can do.”
Jeff Sparrow, Sydney Morning Herald
“There is a convention, towards the end of a review, to compare the writer with their peers, contemporary or long gone, to situate them in a continuum, to give a curious reader an idea of what they would expect. But to compare this work to anything on the shelves would be a disservice and, besides, the sheer breathtaking ambition of it has humbled and shamed me out of it. ... With Axiomatic, Tumarkin is simply operating on a higher level to the rest of us.”
Liam Pieper, The Australian
"In Axiomatic, her fourth book, Tumarkin unleashes a freewheeling energy that was restrained in her previous books. ... In many of its most lucid passages, Axiomatic achieves gravitas and a psalm-like plaintiveness. Memorably, Tumarkin draws upon a creation mythology to liken human beings to ‘broken vessels’ full of divine light. Spilling out of this vessel, shards of this light, our past experience, lodge in the present. Axiomatic reminds us that our word ‘poignant’ comes, via French, from the Latin pungere: ‘to prick, to sting’."
Darius Sepehri, Australian Book Review
“Maria Tumarkin’s shape-shifting Axiomatic deploys all the resources of narrative, reportage and essay. It is a work of great power and beauty. With mainstream journalism investing most of its analytical energy in the foggy concept of populism, the most illuminating historical and sociological explanations of our age of crisis have come from small magazines and university presses.”
Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian
“What a wonderfully idiosyncratic, distinctive and rather wise book this is. Maria Tumarkin takes five familiar sayings – axioms – to meditate on, challenge and interpret by talking, sometimes over years, to a range of people whose experiences enlighten, educate and enliven in surprising ways. Tumarkin, who brings her own experiences to play, writes in a sometimes fierce voice that is utterly her own and brings with it an inquiring mind that together make for a thought-provoking experience.”
Jason Steger, The Age
“That the essays come across as original is a testament to their artful construction, as they organically navigates the networks of a community and evoke a larger system through its smaller components.”
“Tumarkin is attuned to the realities of unconquerable, systemic inequalities, as well as the crushing burdens that often come with one’s familial history, recognizing the real limits of human agency to affect personal change in such circumstances.”
Joel Pinckney, Full Stop
“What Tumarkin has produced is unlike any work of non-fiction I have read to date. To call it experimental or poetic does not cover the breadth and originality of her work. Not only in style, but in content, in the way she draws out the human experience and lays bare something fundamentally true, honest and almost unbearably tender. There is power in this, and strength. Tumarkin does not shy away from the uncomfortable, from the too-hard-to-be-written-or-even-contemplated, but faces it head on, with dignity, and with knowledge of her own fallibility.”
Caitlin Cassidy, Right Now
“By inhabiting and embodying the spectrum of human pain and suffering, Tumarkin fights for every person encapsulated in Axiomatic, and in doing so has created something deeply original and essential to understanding the core of the human experience.”
Sonia Nair, Feminist Writers Festival
“This is a highly original collection unlike anything I’ve read by an Australian author. Tumarkin’s writing style is unflinching and unique and her insight into human behaviour is extraordinary.”
Kara Nicholson, Readings
Maria Tumarkin’s “Axiomatic” is why I read books. It is extraordinary: powerful, daring and deeply tender. A masterpiece and an original. I honestly can’t say enough good things about it. I was utterly blown away.— Michael Williams (@mmccwill) May 20, 2018
Have you read Axiomatic. My god. A book and not specifically a memoir but a work of fucking genius.— Marieke Hardy (@mariekehardy) July 1, 2018
Thought I would read just a couple of pages of Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, before the next thing on the list, but here I am, weeping and electric with her words at the end of the first essay and unable to stop. Phenomenal. @Brow_Books— kate mildenhall (@katemildenhall) May 23, 2018
CAN WRITE. Every page of Maria Tumarkin’s ‘Axiomatic’ is a little gift but this passage on the nature of time in particular stopped me in my tracks. pic.twitter.com/JNSvaAJvV8— Sophie Black (@sophblack) May 21, 2018
I just read the first chapter of Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin and I feel like my heart has been ripped out of my chest and held in front of my face. Extraordinary. Thank you @TheLiftedBrow.— Felicity Watson (@felixexplody) May 25, 2018
I cannot express adequately how much I am loving Maria Tumarkin's book Axiomatic. Her writing is a whole other level of skill. I was in tears at her empathy within the first chapter. Goodness knows what the people on the tram thought of the woman sobbing in the corner! 🤣— KelB (@KelButler) May 27, 2018
This book fucked me up for life. It is also one of the best essay books I've ever read. The section on reaching the age where your parents died really got me. It's awesome. Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin from @TheLiftedBrow. I want more pic.twitter.com/8nFlSursMI— Thin-skinned & Prickly (@legendsoflucas) June 3, 2018
#Axiomatic by #mariatumarkin @brow_books is extraordinary. A book I had to keep putting down to properly take in. Have not stopped recommending it. Feel the same way I did after I read #Didion & #Garner & #Solnit for the first time - like I have a new understanding of what words can do. #readinglist2018 #womenwriters #australiannonfiction #mustread #amreading #smallpress
Helen Garner says, “Nobody can write like Maria Tumarkin: she charges headlong into the worst and best of us, with an iron refusal to soften or decorate; sentences bare of artifice, stripped back to the bone, to the nerve; fired by raging grief and love.” Find Maria's #sydneywritersfestival event via the link in our bio.
Well I dunno but I reckon, being halfway through it and unable to concentrate on much else, that #mariatumarkin latest book Axiomatic is one of the truly GREAT BOOKS of the world. (No ! Needed)— Bernadette Brennan (@dettebrennan) June 12, 2018