Now that Émile Hazel has retired from teaching Classics at the lycée, his dream of living in seclusion in the countryside with his lifelong lover, his wife Juliette, is about to be fulfilled. But shortly after they settle into the house in the woods, their paradise begins to turn into hell. The local (and virtually unemployed, but certainly unemployable) doctor, the hulking monster Palamède Bernardin, who lives in the only nearby house, invites himself in to welcome them. But he's not at all welcoming, seems to have a vocabulary scarcely more extensive than 'Yes' and 'No', and exhausts the unfortunate Hazels by remaining there for two hours, from 16:00 to 18:00 exactly.
Furthermore, he returns at the same time the next day, with the same conversation, and stays the same length of time. And the next day. Bernardin's presence is beginning to weigh increasingly heavily on the couple's happiness, so the following day they decide to go for a walk to avoid him. It's obvious he paid a visit when they were gone, and sure enough the next day he returns and seems angry that they went for a walk: clearly, the Hazels' lives are no longer their own.
They try hiding upstairs but he almost knocks the door down, knowing they're there. They invite his wife to dinner, but she turns out to be an obnoxious lump of fat with appalling table manners, and they secretly call her 'le kyste' ('the cist'). The turning point comes when Bernardin permanently frightens a friend of theirs away, after which the usually ultra-polite and long-suffering Émile finally snaps and tells his 'emmerdeur' ('ball breaker') to 'piss off' and not return, and pushes him away from the doorway. A few days later, Bernardin tries to kill himself, but Émile saves him. And regrets it.
It is then that the couple see inside the Bernardin house, which is a vile-smelling tip with 25 clocks. Émile begins to realize that Bernardin - who doesn't read, has no television and no interests at all, and who only ever shows negative emotions - has been numb to feelings all his life: the clocks exist as reminders of his pointless existence ticking away, his visits have been a way of sharing that existence, and death really is the only logical way out for him.
There is something of the monsters Prétextat (L'hygiène de l'assassin), Urbain (Journal d'Hirondelle), and Celsius (Péplum) in Bernardin. But then there is also something of the eternal love between Prétextat and Lépoldine - or Urbain and and the young virgin, or Celsius and the city of Pompei - in Émile and Juliette.
Amélie Nothomb continues to fascinate.