Obituary: Maria Judite de Carvalho

Maria Judite de Carvalho, writer: born Lisbon 1921; married Urbano Tavares Rodriges; died Lisbon 19 January 1998.

The very rare contemporary novelists whom we read for style rather than for story - Anita Brookner is one of the most celebrated in Britain - include the Portuguese author Maria Judite de Carvalho.

There are many resemblances between her and Brookner, and she could be called the Portuguese Anita Brookner were it not that her work displays influences of Francoise Sagan and Dominique Rolin. Her style is deliberately unsentimental and unadorned, of classic restraint, with touches of black humour enlivening her naturalistic dialogues. The heroine - if such a sad, mousy character can be called that - of her first novel, Tanta Gento ("All Those People", 1959), comments wryly towards the end of her comic-pathetic life: "Always I had this urge to laugh at things that no one else finds funny."

That strikes the frequent theme of loneliness in her work. The style is sober and discreet, yet always fascinating. Her bleak vision of human non- relationships sets her apart from her contemporaries like the flamboyant story-spinner Augustina Bessa-Luis. Her characters are weak, ordinary, humble, ineffective, yet unfailingly attractive as we follow them through drab, unhappy lives and melancholy failures in love set in shadowy rooms by Vuillard haunted by echoes of fado's brooding nostalgia. As she said in a rare interview: "If my stories are black, it's because they are inspired by the dark side of existence."

Maria Judite de Carvalho studied European literature at university, and in the Fifties left the stifling provincial rigours of the Salazar regime for the post-war liberties of France and Belgium, where she took up painting. Her observant eye for the charms of the ordinary and sense of volume and colour were to be vital elements in her writing, as she constructed her first brief stories in the same way as she would lay out the composition of a canvas.

She wrote a dozen or so carefully composed novels and some collections of crystalline short stories which are perhaps her most perfect works. Her second novel, As Palabras Poupadas ("These Words we Save", 1961), was awarded the Premio Camilo Castelo Branco prize. Her press chronicles of daily existence in the streets and markets of Lisbon were collected in two volumes in the 1980s, and her last work, Seta Despedita ("Flight of the Arrow"), was published in 1996.

Most of her writing was published in French by Editions de la Difference, well-named, which has done so much to make Portuguese as well as other European writers popular in France. Sadly, no British publisher ever had the urge to publish this exceptional talent in English.