J.M. Coetzee by Summertime
Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

1. What do you think about the structure of the novel? Do you believe it's an effective way of telling this character's story? Why do you think Coetzee, the author, chose to write the story in this way?

2. How close do you think Coetzee the character is to Coetzee the author? Are we to read this as autobiography?

3. Which of the five interviewees do you think knew Coetzee the best? Who had the most insight into the man?

4. In the first interview, Julia Frankl tells Vincent that "if you go away from here and start fiddling with the text, the whole thing will turn to ash in your hands" (page 44). What does Julia's statement say about the nature of biography? Can we ever really get the true story of someone's life?

5. What portrait of South Africa and Cape Town emerges from the interviews in this novel? How do you think the country itself had an effect on the character John Coetzee and on the interviewees?

6. Julia says of Dusklands , Coetzee's first work of fiction, that "I prefer my books to have proper heroes and heroines, characters you can admire" (page 56). What do you think about this? Do you like novels to contain characters that you like, or do you find the flawed characters more compelling? Why?

7. Adriana cannot believe that Coetzee was a great writer because "a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You also have to be a great man" (page 195). Do you agree? What do you think she means by "a great man"?

8. Martin is the only male interviewee. How does his testimony differ from the women's? Why do you think the biographer included him in this project? Do you think that there's a reason why he is the only one not identified by his full name?

9. The ending of the book is pretty bleak. Coetzee must decide between devoting himself to nursing his father for the rest of the man's life or abandoning him. Which do you think he will choose? Why? Could there be a third option, and what do you think that might be?

10. Vincent is a shadowy presence throughout the book. What do we learn about him? Do you think his biography will be reliable? Do you think he has a tendency to lead his subjects?

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