I began to read Jean-Christophe (Chinese translation) in my junior year at high school, and only finished it in the freshman year at college. My father recommended it. The book felt heavy to read in the beginning, with all the foreign names of people and places and unfamiliar social settings and background, but gradually it became fascinating. It is like an out-of-town uncle visiting the house. First he is a total stranger. However when days pass by, you start talking to him, and he opens up and shares with you all his interesting personal experiences. You gradually like him and eventually learn a lot from him.
The first thing that surprised me in the book is that the life of Jean-Christophe, as a devoted musical genius and a simulacrum of the great Beethoven, is mostly driven by raw desires—for love, lust, companionship and friendship, social acceptance, fame, wealth etc., and is filled with struggles—both inside and outside, many disappointments, and successes only few and far between, just like my own life and the lives of the regular people I knew. As a teenager, I secretly felt closer to the characters in the book and famous people in general, because of the newly acquired idea that they have the same mortal internals as I do. The book also helped shape my expectations of life. I started to believe that a successful person‘s success grows from an honestly conducted, naturally complex and even outright chaotic personal life. During my high school years, the competition for academic excellence was very high. Parents and teachers pressured kids to put every bit of energy into schooling. The belief helped me keep a broader view and a more balanced schedule while managing the pressure at school and the growing pains of an adolescent.
When Jean-Christophe’s first love Sabine died, the book describes how he feels: “Love and sorrow looked towards the future, not towards the past.” “Each of us bears in his soul as it were a little graveyard of those whom he has loved. They sleep there, through the years, untroubled. But a day cometh,—this we know,—when the graves shall reopen. The dead issue from the tomb and smile with their pale lips—loving, always—on the beloved, and the lover, in whose breast their memory dwells, like the child sleeping in the mother’s womb.” These words (in Chinese) came back to my mind multiple times when I later lost loved ones. Death only hides love, somewhere deep in the heart. Death does not end love. The best way to honor the people we loved and lost is for us, the living, to be strong and brave the misfortunes.
Olivier is Jean-Christophe’s best friend, but the two have very different personalities. Jean-Christophe is outgoing, impulsive and eager to act, and Olivier is sensitive, rational and peaceful. Jean-Christophe is passionate about the Paris riot and is deeply involved. Olivier is skeptical and is only dragged in to help Jean-Christophe. However it is Olivier who is killed in the commotion, and Jean-Christophe survives. To me, this is an early lesson about the vicissitudes of life. The biggest unfairness a kid can imagine may well be that someone dies even though he always tiptoes around dangers, and meanwhile another man, who does not mind to die, lives on. I have since seen unexpected and unreasonable things just like other grown-ups. Sometimes I think of Olivier and Jean-Christophe, and remind myself not to be crushed by fear. Twists and turns are just part of life. Complaining does not help. Instead, keep cool and figure out what is right and what is the best to do next.
In retrospect, the biggest influences of this book, or any other books I read during teenage years, often happen years after, when I face choices in handling love, family, career, friendships, social issues, foreign countries etc. When a person makes an important decision in life, all his relevant knowledge matters in the internal deliberation. Such knowledge typically includes his own experiences, the experiences of his parents and those of anyone he is familiar with. These people’s lives often become examples for the person to consider. The good ones he should follow, and the bad ones he should avoid. The knowledge that he learns from books, especially the classical literature, can help him make better decisions, just like his knowledge from the real life. Everyone has a limited circle of friends and family that he can draw knowledge from, but the classical literature can be a much broader, and often much deeper, source of knowledge.