Like the black South Africans whose cause she has long championed, Nadine Gordimer knows the meaning of a dream deferred. But on a recent morning, the white South African author of 10 novels and 200 short stories awoke to find that one of her dreams had finally come true: She'd become the first woman since Nelly Sachs a quarter of a century ago to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. ''I'd been on the list so many times that I was thinking of putting 'Nadine Gordimer Nobel Prize (failed)' on my book covers,'' says the novelist. ''These things just happen. They fall out of the sky. And if they don't, that's got nothing to do with your daily life.''
For Gordimer, 67, daily life in her native Johannesburg involves writing four hours each morning on her Hermes portable typewriter. It was on this battered old machine that she created the sharpest diagnosis of apartheid's pathology, including three novels (A World of Strangers, The Late Bourgeois World, and Burger's Daughter) that were banned by the South African government. The rest of her day is devoted to her family (she is married to gallery owner Reinhold Cassirer) and to politics.
In March 1990, Gordimer became one of the first whites to join Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. ''It was just a technicality joining it,'' says Gordimer, brushing it off. ''I had been a longtime supporter, but it had been an illegal organization. It didn't issue membership cards!''
Gordimer resists any suggestion that the Nobel is an endorsement of her politics or, conversely, that the Nobel committee bears a political bias against women. ''Well, it is extraordinary that it took 25 years,'' says Gordimer, ''but we all know there are fewer women writers who are well known than men. If there is anything more sinister to it than that, I don't know.''
The prize this year is valued at approximately $985,000. Will Gordimer, who has a reputation for generosity, be disposed to give it away? ''I shouldn't think so. I have a family and obligations too. But I hope to give some of it away.''
The best of Gordimer:
The Conservationist (1975)
The portrait of a keenly intelligent Afrikaner industrialist who is devoted to ambition and plagued by cynicism.
Selected Stories (1975)
Often thought to be Gordimer's best work, these beautifully constructed stories describe the everyday ironies, horrors, and disappointments of life under apartheid.
Burger's Daughter (1979)
The daughter of an antiapartheid activist who died in prison tries to find her own way of extending her family's political legacy.
July's People (1981)
Set in the future after the triumph of majority rule, the story of a white family's dependence on its household servant for salvation.
A Sport of Nature (1987)
Another novel of the future. An adventurous white woman from a privileged background falls in love with the first black man to become president of South Africa.