At 80, Arthur Miller puts a pail down his well and finds there's still lots of water there
THERE's a great Arthur Miller scene which depicts a brother and sister, Janice and Herman, quarrelling in a New York bar. Their father has died, and they've just left the Jewish funeral ceremony, and while they argue over Martinis about politics and real estate the cardboard box containing Papa's ashes sits between them on the bar. Suddenly disgusted by her brother's materialism, Janice storms out, remembering only later that the box of ashes had been entrusted to her safekeeping. She returns, vainly searching the bar and Ladies Room ("Oh God, what if someone sprinkled Papa down there!"), then settles down to drink more Martinis with the bartender, while others around them "listen in their brutal solemnity from a respectful distance".

It's a highly theatrical scene, and you wonder what Miller would make of it on the stage. But it comes from his new novella, Plain Girl, where it's slipped in rather untheatrically, as an almost comic digression in the story of Janice's life. Based on a real experience, but floated as fiction, it's a reminder that Miller sometimes looks to stories as an escape from the work for which he's better known. He's not alone in wearing two hats, of course. The plays of Yeats, T S Eliot and Joseph Heller, the poetry of Updike, Pinter and Graham Greene, the fiction of Larkin, David Mamet and Randall Jarrell: such writings on the side are fascinating for the insights they give into their authors' "real" achievements, and at best they also stand up in their own right. More pertinently, perhaps, there's Chekhov, whom Miller admires and who excelled equally as a short story writer and dramatist.

No one has ever made Chekhovian-size claims for Arthur Miller's fiction, least of all Miller himself. When the interviews and tributes are published this week, on the occasion of his 80th birthday on Tuesday, such attention as doesn't fall on "the Marilyn years" will be reserved for his theatrical triumphs, among them Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible. But as he told me when we met recently, on his last trip through London, Miller is "an opponent of the idea that you can only be one thing". And the appearance of Plain Girl (published as Homely Girl in the US in 1992), and the reissue of his Collected Stories I Don't Need You Any More (first published nearly 30 years ago), are an opportunity to observe in arrest or slow motion, as if frozen on the page, the same qualities that make Miller a great playwright.

The time-image is one that Miller himself uses, about the difference between dialogue in a play and dialogue in fiction: "In the theatre, all dialogue has got a clock running on it. In A View from the Bridge you've got just five minutes, or 100 lines, to set up the situation and relationships of four people. I wouldn't know how to start to do that in a narrative, but I know - even if I'm not sure why - that in fiction time slows down. It's a different kind of intensity. It's something novelists don't appreciate when they try to write plays: whereas dialogue in a book is sometimes incidental, on stage it's the only instrument you've got."

Miller admits that his chief reason for writing fiction is "because I enjoy doing it. I wouldn't have that feeling doing a big novel. A story is more like a play in that way: it doesn't unravel over a long period; it's condensed; you can create one image and store it the back of the head. What's terrific about a story is that you have the reader cast it and put all the furniture in the room. And you don't have to talk to actors and directors, which suits me at my stage of the game, when I'm eager just to get back home and put a pail down the well and see if there's any water."

At his stage of the game, in his suite at the Montcalm Hotel, with his third wife, the photographer Inge Morath, as a constant companion, Miller looks remarkably fit. Tall, lean and tanned, with only the gravel in his voice to suggest a history of heavy nights, he has the gleam of someone whose reputation has lately risen or revived, if more in London than in his native Manhattan. Not many writers flourish in their seventies, but since 1983 Miller has had a string of new plays, directed Death of a Salesman in Beijing, and published his autobiography Timebends. He feels bitter still about Broadway's indifference to him, and dismayed that New York has become "a theatre of the bottom line", in which risks and revivals have no place : "some genius is going to have to reconceive the relationship of the audience and the theatre there ..." But his mood, relaxed and serene, is one of "fuck the future".

"Fuck the future" is the slogan of Janice, the eponymous plain (or homely) girl of his novella, who wakes one cold June morning to discover that her beloved Charles is dead. It's Charles who has helped her believe that you can live in the present, Charles in whose (literally) blind eyes she at last feels beautiful, and Charles who has brought her 14 years' happiness out of her 61 ("not a bad average," says Miller). Though the novel begins with a death, and ends with Janice watching the demolition of a New York hotel, its mood is upbeat. A disaster has been avoided. There isn't an unhappy ending. "Fuck the future" isn't bleak or selfish, but a resolution to seize the day.

Janice comes out with her slogan while married to Sam, a Jewish book- dealer whose life is consumed by the fight against Fascism. The failure of their marriage is partly sexual (as Janice discovers when she has a couple of affairs), but mainly to do with Sam's loyalty to a Soviet Utopia, a loyalty which Janice thinks noble but deluded (and which also blinds Sam to her beauty). It's typical Miller territory - the Depression, the Thirties and the Left - but his attention to the inner life of a woman is less familiar. Charles, who spent the Thirties studying music rather than being a radical, teaches Janice that embracing the present doesn't mean feeling embarrassed about her past beliefs: "Would you rather have had no beliefs at all?"

The message - that individualism and social responsibility needn't be incompatible - seems rather Blairite and Nineties. But for Miller, writing Plain Girl meant recovering feelings and arguments from half a century ago, including those which (as Timebends describes) divided him and Lillian Hellman. He doesn't find retrieval an easy business: "Part of the impulse to write the novel was the feeling that we don't remember anything. The shifts in sensibility we've had are cataclysmic. The kind of changes that used to take 50 years now happen every eight or ten. The figures we make on the sand get washed to nothing. I wonder if it's that which makes people go crazy - the endless, rapid sweeping away. It's very slithery, trying to get a hold on the past - like grabbing a whale that keeps sounding. It's not just a matter of having to fight a fading memory, but of being able to place yourself emotionally and psychologically: those little designs on the tapestry belong to a whole attitude, and you have to use handholds to climb back."

At 80, Miller now accepts his role as the man with a long memory. His stories and plays are a corrective to a culture which doesn't know, or doesn't want to know, its own past. He wants to nail down history, to prevent it slipping away. But he's not so excited by playing Elijah, or Methuselah, as to forget that fiction and theatre are different forms:

"Theatre is musical, an auditory experience, with rhythms that have to be completed: bang-bang-bang. I like the opposite occasionally, and think of books as moments of quiet, or as giving off a nice oblong hum. Theatre is dynamic; the act of reading means you can stop to consider, or because you're tired. Theatre means props and scenery; in fiction, like the movies, you can cut straight from one scene to another, without worrying about all that lumber. Maybe with fiction you can also assume a certain level of education in your audience. Whereas theatre is a vulgar art, which is its attraction: it has to appeal to the great unwashed. Novelists have a tendency both to look down on and to envy it."

Stories can be the more revealing of the author, too, quietly blurting out the truth rather than striking large heroic gestures: "Chekhov lets himself into his stories more than into his plays, and is funnier and more amiable because he's wandering round the countryside rather than having to get to a curtain line." Miller, too, lets himself into his fiction, or raids his life for material, even more than in his plays. The title- story of I Don't Need You Any More describes a boy who resembles the boy Miller (like Timebends it speaks of sticking-out ears), with a mother as neurotically frustrated as his mother, in a family home not dissimilar to his own. "Fame" recounts a chance meeting between a Jewish writer who's had a big Salesman-like hit and an old schoolfriend. "Fitter's Night" is set in Brooklyn's naval yard during the war (where Miller then worked, repairing ships). The woman in "Please Don't Kill Anything" sounds a lot like Marilyn. In these stories written during his middle age, only "Misfits" (later a film starring Marilyn, who killed herself shortly after its completion) seems to be truly thrown free.

Miller's taste in fiction, as in drama, is for realism, which he feels has become respectable again. "I haven't kept up with the whole parade," he says, but he mentions "Bellow, Styron, Phil Roth". (Not Norman Mailer, whose Marilyn he hated for its "grinning vengefulness"). He disapproves of the pressure on fiction-writers to produce monsters: "I like a book you can put in your pocket. Hemingway's short stories are better than any big book he wrote. William Trevor, Pritchett and Cheever are best at stories, too. The stuff I like now has the feeling of being intensely edited - like Genesis or the story of Cain and Abel. I'd love to be able to hit the nail on the head like that." Miller once wrote too long, and for drafts of The Crucible and Death of a Salesman used poetry - "verse, anyway" - as a way of paring down. "An entirely utilitarian exercise," he says, but one that taught him an invaluable lesson. Even Timebends, at 600 pages, reads rather sparely.

All this may help explain why Plain Girl is so minimalist. At 50 pages, it's barely even a novella, let alone the "novel" the publishers call it on the cover. It's an odd choice to mark the birthday of a man whose career has been notable for its adventure, largeness of spirit and tough realism. Never mind. It's a start, or anyway a comeback, and now Miller says he has "the feeling I may be able to do some more stories". At 80, he's got a zing in his tail. Happy birthday, Art.

! 'Plain Girl' is published by Methuen, pounds 10; 'I Don't Need You Any More' is published by Minerva, pounds 5.99