TO EVERYONE'S BENEFIT, the unequal cultural balance of trade between Japan and the United States seems to be undergoing another modest correction. Japanese readers have long enjoyed a wealth of translated novels, from Fielding to Faulkner, from the complete Melville to the collected Mailer, and on and on. But now the Perigee Japanese Library has added seven novels by Soseki to its paperback editions of Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Ab,e, giving the American reader a clearer view of the range and depth of modern Japanese fiction.

Soseki (the pen name of Kinnosuke Natsume) was the first major novelist of 20th-century Japan, and remains the most revered, and widely read, of all modern Japanese writers. A brilliant scholar of English literature, at the age of 40 he astonished his colleagues by resigning a position at Tokyo Imperial University to join the staff of the Asahi newspaper as literary editor and author of its daily serialized novels. Shortly before, he had become a sudden popular success with his rambling comic novel I Am a Cat, begun in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War as a sardonic sketch of himself and his household by its shrewdest member, a philosophical cat.

Soseki's experimental early fiction includes a second comic novel, and then a "haiku novel," the poetic Three-Cornered World. With Sanshiro (superbly translated by Jay Rubin in the Perigee collection) he began a series of increasingly somber psychological novels, ending with the rich but unfinished Light and Darkness, all of which explore the theme of human isolation in a self-obsessed modern world. Still, flashes of witty dialogue often light up these pages, though, conversely, even the humorous I Am a Cat has a surprisingly dark undercurrent of sadness beneath the bright satire of the Meiji era Japanese.

Passages in Soseki's Cat seem like mocking, distorted images of those in the later introspective novels. The cat and his master have significant traits in common -- a misanthropic outlook, a weakness for long-winded theorizing, a tendency to be victimized in the practical conduct of life -- but the cat's-eye reflection of this poor middle-aged English teacher is decidedly unflattering. The irascible, supremely ineffectual Mr. Kushami (his elegantly written name is a pun on "sneeze") has only a feeble grasp of English. He is also a misfit in the modern world, the natural target for abuse by rowdy schoolboys, his philistine neighbors and his wife.

This self-caricature is developed over a series of disjointed episodes, connected, if at all, by a thread of plot concerning the romantic affairs of Kushami's young friend Kangetsu, a PhD student in physics who is endlessly grinding a glass ball, trying to reduce it to the right degree of convexity, so that he can launch his experiments on "The Effects of Ultra-Violet Rays on the Electro-Movement Action of the Frog's Eyeball." Aside from his arduous task, Kangetsu seems to spend most of his time with Kushami and an assortment of eccentric intellectual friends. Their erratic and pretentious talk is constantly veering off into nonsense. Even when Kangetsu tells a long, lugubrious story of being tempted to commit suicide as he was crossing a bridge one dark night, he ends with what sounds like the punchline of an old Japanese joke: climbing onto the rail, he jumped-- but somehow jumped backwards, landing senseless in the middle of the bridge.

Traditional Japanese humor, particularly that of the professional storytellers, is echoed in Soseki's mastery of dialogue and such comic techniques as punning, parody, and grotesque exaggeration. He is fond of low humor, but also of witty allusion to serious matters. From the beginning he makes fun of the then influential Japanese school of I-Am-a-Camera detached realism: the cat observes that a full account of life at their house during 24 hours would take another 24 hours to read, or again, gratefully, that 30 minutes passed without any event worth recording. Meanwhile, even the cat indulges in lengthy digressions on topics ranging from normal madness -- the real lunatics are outside the asylums -- to the current vogue for exotic practices:

"Only recently have we heard that we should take exercise, drink milk, dash cold water over ourselves, dive into the sea, seclude ourselves in the mountains, and eat mist for the good of our health. These are all recent maladies which have infected this divine land from Western countries, and these suggestions should be classified as being as dangerous as the pest, tuberculosis and neurasthenia."

Unfortunately, this comic masterpiece often verges on the untranslatable. Certainly it is not a work that can survive a literal version smoothed out by editorial touches. The pompous diction of the Japanese title becomes merely I Am a Cat; puns and parodies alike vanish without a trace; most regrettably, the translators Katsue Shibata and Motonari Kai have failed to convey the flavor of Soseki's vivid, racy style. Their understandable efforts "to ensure understandability" lead even to such oddities as the embedded footnote: for example, a line of dialogue has Mr. Kushami, who is not quite so pedantic, remark that a certain old-fashioned garment "looks as if it were a relic of the Tempo Era (1830-1843 A.D.)."

In a presentation copy of the originial Cat (now in the Harvard Library), Soseki inscribed in impeccable English:

"Herein, a cat speaks in the first person plural, we. Whether regal or editorial, it is beyond the ken of the author to see. Gargantua, Quixote and Tristram Shandy, each has had his day. It is high time this feline king lay in place upon a shelf in Mr. Young's library. And may all his catspaw philosophy, as well as his quaint language, ever remain hieroglyphic in the eyes of the occidentals. --K. Natsume."

No doubt he felt similar hermetic qualms about all his books. Now that about half of Soseki's novels have been translated, sometimes very well indeed, perhaps his irony may be viewed in a more cheerful light.

Other books by Soseki Natsume available in English: And Then (Perigee paperback, $6.95) Botchan (Kodansha International, $6.95; paperback, $3.95) Light and Darkness (Perigee paperback, $7.95) Mon (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, $13.95; Perigee paperback, $5.95) Sanshiro (Perigee paperback, $5.95) The Three-Cornered World (Perigee paperback, $4.95) The Wayfarer (Perigee paperback, $6.95)