Issue #74

Spring 2020

Antonio Scalvo's Library

by Celia Neri

When Antonio Scalvo died, he left his library to his youngest daughter, Laeticia. "The finest poetry collection worldwide," he thought. "It'll be safe in her hands." After all, Laeticia had studied Literature at the Bologna University. But Antonio saw how she was looking at the library the day after the funeral. In her eyes, he recognised wariness at the sheer number of volumes, and greed. Within a week, the collection was sold to Sotheby's.

Thus Antonio Scalvo departed this world, wailing in despair at the idea of his beautiful library being scattered, dissected and sent, limb by limb, book by book, all over the world1.


Had Antonio's consciousness stuck to Earth just a bit more, he'd have probably felt pride, maybe even glee, at seeing the worth of his collection being recognised. The Scalvo's library became famous within days. Not only the entire literary world—writers, critics, publishers, academics, readers—paled with envy when Sotheby's advertised the auction and provided a catalogue2. But the auction itself became momentous.

The starting price was $950,000. It was a very reasonable price for such a collection, and the audience comprised not only two very wealthy and very famous writers, but also three academics representing universities which had sold a couple of minor real estate assets in order to bid, and a smattering of bankers and former Silicon Valley prodigies, keen to spend a lot of money to look like intellectuals3.

Except that, when the time came, no one bid. A hush fell onto the room. The auctioneer chanted desperately to entice the audience but no one heeded her. She threatened to drop the hammer; not a single paddle was raised. She looked around her, desperate for help; everyone seemed as if hypnotised. The audience, even the porters, were all looking at her, faint smiles on their lips, their heads shaking slightly. Here but absent. And, without any reason she could explain later, the auctioneer dropped the hammer and called the sale adjourned4.

"The Cursed Library!"5 headlines proclaimed, as if they were advertising a pulp serial. "The Books Sotheby's can't sell!"6 affirmed another. It wasn't true, counter-claimed Sotheby's7. It was so untrue in fact, that a new attempt at the sale was going to take place next week, thank you very much, and their very dear auctioneer who worked the first sale was now gone on a sabbatical which, they hoped, would help her mental well-being.

The new sale happened. The room was packed. Eager journalists lined the walls, hoping for something eerie to happen again. An entire row of helpers was standing behind the new auctioneer. Just in case. Sotheby's had discreetly placed some of their employees in the audience; their job was to prod the bids on. The previous disaster wasn't allowed to repeat.

It didn't. The library sold. Expensively. And when the happy new owner—Gaspard de la Musardière, a very rich, very snobbish and entirely disagreeable man who actually had no interest whatsoever in poetry—set foot in the hangar that was supposed to house the collection, he discovered all the books had disappeared8.


A few thousand kilometres away from Sotheby's auction room and a week later, Marwa Mouawad, a middle aged Lebanese librarian who worked at Beirut university9, woke up to find her tiny apartment filled to the ceiling with books she had never seen in her life. It is one thing to have a bad morning day. It is entirely another to open a bleary eye and to find hardbacks towering above you, surrounding your bed, menacing to topple all over you. Very cautiously so she wouldn't upset the fragile balance of the pile, Marwa took a volume and opened it. On the first page read the name of the owner written in elegant, if old-fashioned, lettering: Antonio Scalvo.

As Marwa navigated cautiously her apartment in her pyjamas to survey the extent of the bookish invasion, she saw that Louise Labé and Pernette du Guillet had colonised her kitchen for a chat, that Gibran Khalil Gibran had settled comfortably in the bathtub, and that Josh Malihabadi was probably trying to stir her DVD collection into revolt. She was considering, dismayed, the thousand tomes lining up the walls, piled nilly-willy on her furniture, on the floor, on her appliances, when an Obras Completas by Delmira Agustini suddenly popped into existence and fell on her head.

She shouted, hurt and surprised10. The two volumes were now resting innocently on a rare book-free patch of her rug. Soon, a first edition of the Canto General by Pablo Neruda appeared to rest on top of Agustini's works. It seemed copies kept on appearing. As if the whole library hadn't arrived yet. Marwa opened her eyes wide and would have sat down, her knees weak, if only all of her chairs and most of the floor weren't already occupied.

Her first instinct was to catalogue the books. Her second was to call the police. Possession of stolen goods wasn't something she was keen on being arrested for. Her third was to open a random tome and start reading. It had been too long since she had read poetry.

She pushed away a quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets that seemed like the 1609 edition, a Brazilian edition of Hilda Hist's Complete Poetry, and sat, cross-legged, on her rug, diving into Pierre Ménard's Canzoniere with a shiver of excitment11. Words washed through her mind like a wave surging, lapping at her feet before it carried her away.


On Thursday the following week, her colleague Amir Chouprat, came to her apartment, extremely worried about her. She hadn't phoned in sick. She hadn't replied to calls, to texts, to emails12.

He knocked. He pounded on the door. Nobody answered. He searched for a spare key above the door, or under the rug. In the end, Amir had to go knocking on the other doors. Marwa had no family in Beirut, and the enquiry at her neighbours revealed none of them actually knew her beyond the basic courtesies when they crossed paths in the stairs. The police were called and they tried to take the door down. They began with a virile display, heading shoulder first into the closed door, which didn't budge13. Firemen were called in so they could take it down with an axe.

As splinters flew, the rescuers could see they hadn't been able to take the door down because something, something towering from floor to ceiling, was right against it. It was only when the wood was entirely chopped down that they realised the something was stacks of books. Like a wall, preventing them from entering.

A human chain formed: policemen, firemen, nosy neighbours, they were handing each other the volumes, one by one, all the way into the street to clear a path into Marwa's apartment. Behind those first books, they found more books. It looked as if every available space was now occupied by poetry tomes.

"I had never realised she had that many," said Amir as he passed down Shakespeare, Neruda, Agustini, Malihabadi, Hist, Gibran, du Guillet, Labé and the others. A neighbour looked at him with a disbelieving look but it took Amir a while to realise this situation was well beyond an unhealthy tendency to hoard books.

Shouts erupted: some from the street, some from inside the apartment.

Inside the apartment, a path had been cleared. It was about five paperbacks wide had they been put flat on the carpet. It snaked through cliffs of hardbacks. From the hallway, it led to the kitchen where it stopped when an appliance had been discovered. It wound its way to hit a wall, then followed it to the living-room. Five paths, as branches of a star, led away from it14.

In the street, the books had been passed from hand to hand, until carefully stacked. First one pile. Then another, then another again. Leaning into each other, it seemed as if they were a brushing hand away from crashing onto the pavement. People passing by had to cross the street as the volumes soon colonised the concrete and started stretching eastwards and westwards in Maalouf Street, beyond number 43 where Marwa lived.

In the living-room, Wajdi, a fireman, had picked up a beautiful copy of Cyrano de Bergerac and stared at it thoughtfully. Wajdi had a fondness for Barbra Cartland's novels, and decades of reading romances had given him a strong ability at picking up patterns and hints. This thing was not like the others15.

Outside number 41 of Maalouf Street, Magida had realised that it was the third time she was putting a leather-bound copy on the same pile, at the same height. She stared with suspicion at the volume she had just put down but Don Quijote remained innocently in place16.

Below the Cyrano de Bergerac copy, Wajdi glimpsed fabric. He gave a shout to his colleagues as he started removing books with renewed haste. An arm was revealed. A shoulder. A neck. Marwa's face, framed by The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka and If on a Winter's Night by Italo Calvino. He observed her: her dry lips, her slightly popping eyes. It looked as if she had died of thirst.

Magida didn't read Barbra Cartland. She didn't read at all as it were, though she would probably say that she didn't read much. Unlike Wajdi, she never realised that she had gone from piling up only poetry books to piling up books that threw pell-mell poetry, plays, novels, short stories collections, essays… On the other hand, she was a keen observer of her neighbours and she saw instantly that Don Quijote had disappeared as she was about to put down Orlando. She shouted in dismay.

"You can't die of thirst because you don't want to stop reading," Wajdi said, shrugging. "I mean, every reader learns, sooner or later, how to navigate their apartment to provide for their basic needs while still reading. How to reach the loo, the fridge, the sink. How to fill a glass without taking their eyes from the text."17

"I swear to you it was here a minute ago," exclaimed Magida to the man who was passing down the volumes to her. "I don't want anyone to go and say I have stolen those books!" The man nodded. It was well known that the only fictions Magida was interested in were the latest gossip.

At that very moment, the books disappeared, one by one, vanishing with a loud pop. The entire street was filled with the sound as if a hundred children were having fun with bubble wrap. In the reverse order of their erection, the piles evaporated. The pavement reappeared. The stairways to Marwa's apartment cleared. The wallpaper in her hallway was visible again. The corpse slumped slightly as the editions that supported it disappeared. Until nothing remained but what had been there before. Some potted plants. DVDs. Three shelves of cheap paperbacks. Kitchen appliances. Bath salts. And a body.

The police took statements. Some people were claiming they saw thieves carrying the books away. Of course, it was thieves. Books didn't disappear into thin air, did they?

When, at the end of a long and bewildering day, the police officers entered the statements in the computer, several flags appeared. They were all for items reported stolen by Interpol. Antonio Scalvo's library. Suzanne Lao's library. The Jesuitic College of Hav's library. Hypatia's library. Most of the names and the cases were famous enough that even these simple detectives from a quiet neighbourhood whistled at seeing them appearing on screen18.


It's now been three weeks since Antonio Scvalvo's library has disappeared again. I am pretty sure it is looking for a new haven now that its rightful owner has gone, and a few other threatened libraries have banded with it. Like a plague of locusts, only looking to preserve itself as a whole, even if they destroyed their raison d'être, their readers, in the process. Now all of us, literary types and avid book lovers, are living in fear it would appear in our homes. That we would be compelled to read the volumes as we died, slowly, lost to the world. As the volumes would fill our apartments, slowly, insulating us from the world. We must look out for each other. It is my plea to you all: reach out, we need to be ready to help each other. Because I'm certain it will occur again.

For instance, my friend Dr Camélia Makanga hasn't responded to my calls and emails in the past forty-eight hours. I have accounted for the time difference. I have accounted for the possibility of a family emergency. There's no power outage in her area, the internet works fine19.

Her PhD was on "Darkness and Light in Amina Said's poetry". I'm now extremely worried about her.


[1] "I can see him, moving beyond the veil. He's wailing, wailing about what he leaves behind. Worried about what will happen to what he cares most about. It's as if he's too afraid to remain and watch." Interview with Boris Kardini, medium. See Annex 1. [back to story]

[2] Sotheby's Geneva Auction Catalogue, The Library of Antonio Scalvo, Wednesday 13 October 2019. [back to story]

[3] J. Milling, "The books that wouldn't sell", The Guardian, Friday 15 October 2019. [back to story]

[4] Ibid. [back to story]

[5] The Daily Mail Online, Friday 15 October 2019. In order to preserve your mental well-being and so that we don't provide that awful rag with more clicks, the website address comes from a mirror: [back to story]

[6] R. Humphries, "The books Sotheby's can't sell!", The Financial Times, Saturday 16 October 2019. [back to story]

[7] Sotheby's Press Release, Tuesday 19 October 2019. Retrieved at [back to story]

[8] "He was a complete arsehole so when he started ranting about his precious books that were gone, I swear to you, I nearly burst laughing into his face!" Interview with Sotheby's Employee A. See Annex 2. [back to story]

[9] [back to story]

[10] "Then we heard a great shout coming from below and Marwa cursed 'Bloody Agustini!' It surprised us because she was always so very quiet and polite, and there's no Agustini in the building, or in the area. That we know of, of course. It sounded like a foreign name." Witness statement from Etel Barakat, activity number 20-487-EF-987, page 1. [back to story]

[11] "Near the deceased's open fingers we saw Pierre Ménard's Canzoniere. We just had time to see it before it disappeared like the others." Witness Statement from Wajdi Houssami, activity number 20-487-EF-978, page 2. [back to story]

[12] "She hadn't phoned in sick. She hadn't replied to calls, to texts, to emails. I was extremely worried about her." Witness statement from Amir Chouprat, activity number 20-487-EF-981, page 1. [back to story]

[13] "They looked perfectly ridiculous, going all macho, and to no avail." Witness statement from Etel Barakat, activity number 20-487-EF-987, page 2. [back to story]

[14] Sources from various witness statements, activity numbers ranging from 20-487-EF-976 to 20-487-EF-999. [back to story]

[15] "It was weird you know. There were poetry books everywhere. Khalil Gibran was in the bathtub! Can you imagine that? And all of a sudden there was this French play, you know the one about the man with the big nose? Gérard Depardieu's in the film. Come on, I'm sure you at least heard about it!" Witness Statement from Wajdi Houssami, activity number 20-487-EF-978, page 3. [back to story]

[16] "It had disappeared! The previous one had disappeared! There was no other explanation! No, I didn't see it, but there was probably someone hiding and when I turned my back to get the next book, they stole it. That's all your fault, you know. The streets of Beirut are overrun now by drug dealers and young people listening to music loudly, always looking at their bloody mobiles! Shame on the police, shame!" Witness Statement from Magida El Alawi, activity number 20-487-EF-991, page 2. [back to story]

[17] This statement is supported by a number of research essays, the most famous one being "Attention span and self care in addicted readers", Dr T. Thompson and Dr C. Willis, Nature, issue 7617. [back to story]

[18] "I mean, my officers, they aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, you know. They're at the end of their careers, they've got a nice and quiet neighbourhood where nothing much happens, and that suits them fine. But they're not complete morons from a backwater town in Beqaa Valley either." Interview with Detective Hisham El Hajj. See Annex 3. [back to story]

[19] Please join me in calling her: +33 6 512 132 543. We may save her yet! (Overcharge may apply.) [back to story]

Author Bio

origami bird

Celia Neri was born in 1978 on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in a multicultural family. She studied Comparative Literature in Paris before coming back to Southern France where she now lives.

A lifelong science-fiction and fantasy reader, she realised in early 2017 she also had stories to tell and started creative writing, often with an emphasis on characters who reflect aspects of her own identity.