Borges leads me to Samuel Beckett. They share the distinction of inaugurating in literature what has come to be called post-modernism. Clearly it succeeds modernism, the definition of which is not readily clear to me, which itself is an international movement that broke with the 19th-century form of realism. In other words, W. Somerset Maugham doesn’t read like Joseph Conrad. Post-modernism is not bound by temporal terms. Those grand narratives, or metanarratives, don’t manifest in post-modernism. Post-modernist works like those of Borges and Beckett work without rules in order to formulate the rules of what would have been done.
This is what Borges and Beckett’s fictions do: Each piece starts out anew, inventing its rules as it goes along. Usually the stories begin with a very down-to-earth and concrete premise and venture their way to abstract ideas. In his seminal 1967 article “The Literature of Exhaustion,” John Barth identifies Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov as the standard bearers of a new literary tradition, one that eventually became known as postmodernism. Postmodernism is best understood not as a rigid concept or a coherent ideological stance but as a bundle of shared impulses and tendencies amounting to a kind of common spirit. More than anything else postmodernism is an attitude, and that attitude is definitively ironic. It revels in comedy and exalts the spirit of parody and play. Postmodernism is the triumph of irony.
The paradigmatic postmodernist gesture is the one performed by Borges’s Pierre Menard, who sets out to write a book called Don Quixote that is identical in every particular to the Don Quixote of Cervantes—word for word—but is nevertheless superior to that of Cervantes, because it would be harder to write the book in Argentina in the twentieth century than in Spain in the sixteenth when, presumably, the medieval chivalrous ideal was closer to hand. Repetition is postmodernism in action.
Beckett is somewhat different. He tends to present characters that are unexceptional and events that are taken from everyday life. It is not an exclusively postmodern technique, as many writers, most notably Ernest Hemingway, wrote in a similar style, but some critics claim that Samuel Beckett, one of the most important postmodern authors, perfected minimalism. Samuel Beckett, through the development of his unique style, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969 and has become perhaps the first author people think of when they think of postmodern literature. Samuel Beckett wrote a piece later in his career called Happy Days which is mostly a monologue of a woman stuck from the waist up in the sand of a desert as she rambles on and tries to make the best of things. Samuel Beckett felt this way with writing in the sense that he was stuck with what had already been done with language and he was left to rearrange this to create the monstrous. The same year as this revelation, 1945, also marked other reasons besides the shadows left from James Joyce’s monumental modern novels for rejecting the grand narratives of modernism.