Nadine Gordimer <em>Bloomsbury, 240pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0747564973

Nadine Gordimer's exceptional gifts as a writer - her intelligence, her moral sense - have been comprehensively acknowledged by Nobel and Booker prizes and by the critics, who have rightly placed her as one of the great among us. But you have to sit up straight to read her, open your mind, extend your understanding, watch every word. It's worth it. The stories in this collection are both like and unlike her novels. In the latter, she lets character blossom more fully and the harshness of her vision is eased out a little by a longer narrative. The Gordi-mer of these stories inhabits a stern world.

Living in South Africa may be the source of this, but Gordimer's stories are by no means confined to the place where she was born. An episode in one story, about an affair between a poor Russian girl and a comfortable Milanese businessman, magnificently conveys the cruelty that exists everywhere. But it is life in South Africa, under apartheid, that lingers on in each story, as powerful as the atmosphere of Graham Greene's Havana. It taught her something she can never forget: that there is "Something incurable in the nature of human life itself, taking many forms . . . disease, wars, racism. That's how people come to believe - have to believe - in the existence of the Devil along with God. Capital Initials for both." Gordimer watches the devil win in these stories as this sense imbues each piece of fiction, long or short, again evoking Greene's disillusioned Catholic guilt.

Two novella-length stories give the best feel of what she can do. In "Mission Statement", a middle-aged Englishwoman, Roberta Blayne, who works for an international aid agency of the Clare Short kind, falls into an affair with the deputy director of land affairs, Gladwell Shadrack Chabruma, in some unnamed African state, the sort of country that has old hospitals "still known by the name of a deceased English Queen". Gordimer can capture bodies, black and white, in a word, and sexual attraction in a sentence, as when Roberta sees her lover's torso and its "gleaming beauty, sweat-painted, of perfectly formed muscle, the double path below pectorals, left and right, of smooth ribbing beneath lithe skin. Black. Simply Black." The ironic ending of their love affair is perfectly conceived. In Gordimer's Africa, too much has happened for easy endings. Her Europeans, her whites, are as soulless as their predecessors. What followed apartheid, after all, was Aids: today's relics of "imperial compassion" tend what they have produced - the Aids children, the "rags of flesh and bone", "the new-born-to-die".

The other long story, "Karma", is as good as anything she has written. Complex and inventive, it depicts worlds within worlds, yet each life recounted is vividly rooted in family and neighbourhood. The history and stories of her country and ours weave in and out of each episode as a wandering soul is born, again and again, sometimes female, sometimes male (it is always better to be male), reaching eventually a view that seems to be Gordimer's own. For our misdeeds, in whatever human form we take, "we are condemned to live forever". And so the villainy continues.

These stark dreams can be hard to take. The lack of punctuation often means you have to read a sentence three or four times to grasp her sense. This occasionally leads to passages lacking in ebullience: "People in official positions, men and women with a public persona know how to accommodate officially unsuitable private circumstance for some sort of decorum within these positions and personae." This is ironic, but the hand is heavy. Life in a cruel country has given her little to be comic about, and so comedy plays only a small part in her narratives.

There are other extraordinary stories here, the apocalyptic "Loot", for instance, which connects the dictatorships of Chile and South Africa in half a phrase. "I don't ever speak," says one of her characters, a political assassin, a terrorist. Gordimer speaks for him. She is the chronicler of the worst of our times and so there is discomfort in reading her, a bitterness that does not always cheer the heart. Unless the heart can be cheered by quality of intellect, invention and prose alone, in which case these stories cannot be faulted.

Carmen Callil is writing a book about Vichy France