Sonnenfeld retired in May after teaching in the college for 18 years.
The gathering was convivial, musical and gastronomical.
While Sonnenfeld plucked bluegrass tunes on his 1917 banjo, guests sang satirical songs rewritten by Karen Pinkus, the department chair of French and Italian, such as the one to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of Albert the debonnaire,
Known from Emeril’s to Patina for his foody savoir-faire,
Watch him decimate a soufflé and only eat the air,
His truth is marching on.”
Sonnenfeld is the author of two major critical books, “L’Oeuvre Poetique de Tristan Corbiere” and “Crossroads: Studies in the European Catholic Novel,” as well as the editor and contributor to several other books and anthologies. He has published nearly 90 articles on such authors as Flaubert, Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Mann, Malraux, Camus and Valéry.
He also writes monthly food columns and restaurant reviews in L.A.’s West Side Publications, where he is known as the “West Side Guru of Gastronomy.”
Sonnenfeld said he has taught “about 2,000-plus students” in his undergraduate general education course in the Arts and Letters, entitled The Modern Short Story, and calls himself the “Edmund Hilary of the Literary Field” in reference to a piece by former New York Times columnist Russell Baker on “The Everests of Literature.”
“Someone once said that life is too short and Proust too long. I’ve never felt that,” Sonnenfeld said.
“All these books that everyone is supposed to have read, but really have great trouble reading, I have read, ” he said, matter-of-factly. “I have read all of Proust many times. I taught a course at Princeton that was on Proust, ‘Ulysses’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’ by Thomas Mann - three Everests - and the students were expected to read one in the original language - and that didn’t mean “Ulysses.’ ”
“What did Martin Luther King say? ‘I’ve been to the top of the mountain,’” he declared in a playful baritone. “And the view from up there is quite wonderful. I never tire of these people. When a text ceases to have any mystery for me, I certainly drop it from the syllabus right away.”
In reflecting upon his 45-year teaching career, Sonnenfeld has no regrets. “There are people who have had to defer what they really like to do for various professional reasons,” he said. “I haven’t had to do that.” He said that his time at USC has been “wonderful.”
For now, Sonnenfeld said he wants to improve his piano playing and “all other kinds of virtuous things that have gone by the wayside.” And his days of academic writing are over. “As far as things of the intellect, I’m no longer going to write the literary kind of stuff that made my career earlier on,” he said. “I’ve moved on to other interests.”
Those interests involve the pleasures of the table.
He edits a series called “Arts of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History” at Columbia University Press and has sat on the board of directors for the National Institute of Wine and Food. One of his more recent articles focused on the history of the toque, a beret-like hat worn by chefs.
The science of taste, the chemical transformations that occur during the cooking process, are subjects that fascinate him. “I’m the appreciator,” he said, calling himself a born dilettante. “Dilettare in Italian means to take delight - Stendhal always called himself that, and I echo it.”
What he will miss most about teaching is the performance. He said he loved getting up in front of an audience and getting them to sense his enthusiasm for what he does and maybe to have respect and at least an affection for the authors he loves.
So in the fall, he will give a seminar at the Mercantile Library in New York to a “fanatical audience on Marcel Proust.” He will continue his regular speaking engagements at the Arts Club in Gramercy Square, where he holds “poetry readings about food.”
Until then, he and his wife, Noel Riley Fitch, a professor in USC College’s Master in Professional Writing Program (and biographer of Julia Child), will spend the summer in Europe. First stop is Puccini’s hometown, where he said he will sit at a little café with his cappuccio, until “it’s lunchtime and then it’s swimming time and then it’s Campari time.”
Then it’s on to Spain and France, where they will remain in Paris, where Fitch teaches at the American University.
“I’ve had a very good life,” he said. “So my plans are to do more of the same. It’s all fun. I’ll have fun until my liver goes out or until someone says to me ‘Stop or you’re dead!’
“But,” he added, “I don’t intend to stop.”
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